Workday at the World Economic Forum: Connecting to a Changing World

Last month a number of Workday executives attended the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. We sat down with them to get their reflections on the event.

Greg Thomas February 21, 2020
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Last month, business, government, education, and non-profit leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). A number of Workday executives attended the event to meet with fellow leaders and discuss ways to address the challenges of a changing world. 

After the Forum I sat down with three of those executives—Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer; Leighanne Levensaler; chief marketing officer and executive vice president of corporate strategy; and Jim Shaughnessy, executive vice president, corporate affairs. Read on to hear their reflections from WEF.

Ashley, what were the biggest themes you took away from Davos?

Ashley: One of the great things about Davos is there are people from all over the world and from different industries as well as the non-profit and government world. You get to have so many great conversations that would be hard to have elsewhere. 

I was struck by the number of discussions with fellow HR leaders that centered around workforce shaping and how we can create great places to work. There are so many reasons to focus on this. We’re in a period of extended low unemployment and finding and retaining talent is hard. Employees increasingly want to find purpose in their work. And we have the technology today to deliver personalized experiences for every worker.

Employees are the heartbeat of an organization, and companies that will thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond are the ones that focus on the employee experience. Critically, that includes fostering trust and keeping an ongoing pulse of employee sentiment.

There was also a lot of conversation at Davos about preparing employees for the future of work. What did you hear on that front?

Ashley: I’ve read estimates that hundreds of millions of people worldwide will need to find new types of jobs within the next decade due to the impact of automation and new technologies. It’s hard to overstate the impact this will have, and how businesses, governments, and employees adjust to this seismic shift will define the future of work. 

As HR leaders, we have the responsibility to ensure workers have the new skills required for our organizations to remain agile, efficient, and prepared for whatever disruptions the future brings. The lifespan of a skill keeps getting shorter and shorter. No matter what your role is, a commitment to lifelong learning and continually updating your skills is vital.

That’s why it’s so gratifying to see a focus on skills at Davos. By creating reskilling opportunities, we can help equip our employees to take advantage of new opportunities, and, as employers, ensure we have the right skills for the future.

“Employees are the heartbeat of an organization, and companies that will thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond are the ones that focus on the employee experience.” 

Ashley Goldsmith Chief People Officer

Leighanne, how did the WEF theme come through in your interactions in Davos?

Leighanne: This year, the emphasis at Davos was on stakeholder capitalism, as reflected in the theme “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,” which included a huge focus on purpose and sustainability. There has been a shift from focusing solely on shareholders to a broader perspective. Businesses now have a responsibility not just to shareholders, but to serve all stakeholders—customers, employees, and the communities in which we operate. 

It was also interesting to see how the theme touched on being a purpose-driven organization.

Leighanne: Agreed. Being driven by a strong “why” is so important. Knowing your purpose, as an organization, helps ground you in what’s important. To be not just a strong company, but a durable one that will last, you have to have that driving purpose guiding your thought processes and how you communicate. To borrow an old phrase, by doing good, you will do well. 

It also touches on another theme from Davos, that of sustainability. Sustainability has become a business imperative for all companies. Walking down the promenade, I was struck by how many companies, including some of our customers, were showcasing their sustainability commitments and calls to action.

Businesses leaders spoke about the commitments they were making to sustainability. Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff spoke about his latest initiative to plant one trillion trees by the end of the decade, while Dow CEO Jim Fitterling talked about the urgency of addressing plastic waste. Their leadership and commitment, along with others in the industry, was truly inspiring. 

This kind of focus beyond traditional shareholders is ultimately good for business. Delivering results for the long term and building a company that will last are things shareholders can get behind.

“Businesses now have a responsibility not just to shareholders, but to serve all stakeholders.” 

Leighanne Levensaler Chief Marketing Officer

Jim, you saw a strong focus on how technology benefits humanity at Davos. What would you add?

Jim: I attended a session at which Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist made the point that technology is responsible for driving nearly all of the improvements in the human condition. It was a reminder to me that technology, when used for good, can make unparalleled progress regardless of business or region. Technology’s value is democratized in that it improves the overall state of being as part of today’s society.

And to go back to what Ashley was saying about skills, I’d echo that it was a big topic of conversation. We convened a breakfast at Davos with leaders from other companies and the government sector. The work that’s being done around skills—understanding what skills exist, how to identify the ones that are most in demand, and how to ensure people have access to opportunities to upskill or reskill—is one that we can work together on. Technologies like artificial intelligence that are disrupting the labor market today will also provide the tools that enable workers to navigate the changing world of work.

You also saw a strong focus on data and AI ethics. What struck you in how the conversation is evolving?

Jim: I think it goes back in part to the notion of how we continue to deploy technology in ways that are beneficial and inclusive. For example, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella used the term “data dignity” at Davos, explaining, “data dignity goes one step further than privacy. Because data that you contribute to the world has got utility—utility for you, utility for the business that may be giving you a service in return, and the world at large.”

It really resonated with me, especially given Workday’s focus to put customers at the center of what we do, including our privacy principles. Last year, we published a set of principles guiding how we deploy AI. And our Chief Privacy Officer Barbara Cosgrove contributed a blog to the World Economic Forum to help shape the broader conversation about AI and ML. It’s clear that the public sentiment around data privacy and how technology is used is shifting, which we are glad to see given our values and the way we think about these issues.

Leighanne, back to you for the final word. Why was it important for Workday to be at Davos?

Leighanne: The WEF in Davos offers a unique environment, and allows so many opportunities for Workday to engage in discussions with the goal of finding solutions to make change happen at scale. Whether they were formal, moderated conversations or informal catch-ups, it was inspiring to see key players from business, politics, academia, and NGOs come together to dialogue about the most vexing issues impacting our global economy.

It is important for Workday to be part of these discussions, and directly relates to our values and our purpose. We want our brand to reflect our social purpose and our deep commitment to making progress on the big challenges our world is facing, including sustainability, equality, reskilling, and privacy. Our stakeholders want to know how we are using our technology, the ingenuity of our Workmates, and our global reach to make a dent in this world.

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