How Unilever is using AI to ‘democratise’ upskilling and future-proof its employees

Unilever is introducing an online talent marketplace that it hopes will help more staff, including marketers, find projects and develop skills for the future.

unileverUnilever is introducing an online talent marketplace for its staff that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help them identify new career opportunities and areas where they can upskill in a bid to “democratise” learning.

The marketplace, dubbed FLEX Experiences, uses technology from startup InnerMobility by Gloat. It works by asking employees to build a profile of their current skills and areas they are looking to improve or gain new expertise. It then uses AI to help teams identify opportunities across the business that fit with those goals, for example to work on projects that will help them gain new experience or expertise.

Jeroen Wels, executive vice-president of HR at Unilever, tells Marketing Week: “What we are trying to do is to create radical transparency in the opportunities we have. If you build an internal marketplace with AI you do this and you democratise the opportunities in the company so [employees] can see what kind of projects are available to develop their skills, interests and to gain experiences.”

He adds: “[It creates] a frictionless environment so there is no middle man. There is no line manager that doesn’t see all the opportunities or a broker in the middle but instead it is happening on the platform in real time.”

Unilever claims it is already is seeing the benefit for the 30,000 employees, including those in marketing, that are using the system. Wels cites the example of one of its brand managers in the US who is now working on an innovation project in Europe after using the system to find experience in another market.

“He is now gaining international experience without leaving New York and can find out if it is right for him,” says Wels.

The service is opt-in currently and Unilever plans to keep it that way because it wants to “ignite people’s interest to learn”. However, leaders across the organisation are being asked to promote the tool and emphasise its importance, while Unilever is clear that its staff must prepare themselves for the future.

Wels says: “We say it is of strategic importance that you keep on developing yourselves because skills are obsolete before you know it. Our leaders in our organisation are really driving that message: ‘you are responsible for keeping your skills relevant’.”

He adds: “We are entering a period where certain jobs will disappear and some will come back. [This] de-risks for our people transitioning for the roles of the future, so you literally create physiological safety as you create opportunities for people to sharpen their skills”.

Unilever is gradually scaling up the project, with the full roll-out expected to be completed by 2020. So far it is in operation across marketing, finance, IT, supply chain and R&D, with Unilever rolling it out in a measured way so it can iron out any issues and ensure it is relevant.

He adds: “We’re not rolling it out as a big bang technological system because if we do that, for sure it would fail.”

Besides upskilling and helped its employees prepare for the future world of work, Unilever says it has discovered the system has other unexpected benefits. One of these was improving feedback on what projects and skills are of most interest, which helps inform where its brands and their markets are going.

Wels explains: “When we launched the platform, a very senior leader said ‘this will be really interesting because what you will see is which projects and skills are highest in demand’. It was an insightful point because if you have a project that nobody is interested in or where the skills are not available that is very telling.

“[From a marketing perspective] why would you launch a project if your own people are not interested in it? It’s first-party consumer feedback you can get for free.”