As the Global Head of HR Service Design & Delivery for QBE, one of the world's top 20 insurance and reinsurance companies, Vernon Griffith leads a team of 60 people - from HR service specialists in Manila to business analysts in Sydney - to support more than 12,000 employees in over 30 countries.
As his job title implies, Vernon is truly a veteran at delivering HR as a service, and it’s one of many reasons why he was nominated to be a People Geek of the Month. We’re thrilled to put the spotlight on Vernon and share his knowledge when it comes to applying engineering and marketing principles to HR, predictions for the future of work, and much more.
From engineer to people leader
While it may not be obvious from looking at his resume, every experience Vernon has collected throughout his career is used in his current job as a global HR executive for QBE - yes, even his mechanical engineering degree.
“Although engineering was really interesting to me, I didn’t want to design widgets for the rest of my life. People were much more interesting to me. So I decided to go in a slightly different direction and started with a job working in marketing for a leading supermarket. That’s where I learned about concepts like branding, design, and customer service.”
After learning the foundations of marketing, Vernon went into consulting, which is where he started to sink his teeth into various aspects of HR.
“I ventured into consulting, where I first specialized in HR systems and SAP implementations. After that, I focused my work on process design. Then it was large-scale HR transformations working at Deloitte with companies like BP and Shell. Around this time, I realized I had an engineering degree but no background in HR - only what I learned on the job. I wanted to formalize that knowledge, so I earned my masters in international HR. After that, I went in-house where I turned my attention to project and change management.”
After 12 years of consulting and 12 years in-house, Vernon now combines all of his experiences - marketing, engineering, and HR - into his current role.
“I’ve always enjoyed the people aspect of HR. And being able to solve problems, examine processes, and improve the way things can be delivered appeals to my engineering side. So it’s exciting that I get to do both at my job.”
One of the key ways that Vernon blends his work experiences is by borrowing principles from engineering and marketing and applying it to HR. For instance, Vernon has carried over concepts like agile, lean, and human-centered design to his current job.
When I was in engineering and marketing, a lot of those methods were being talked about, it’s great to see them filtering into HR.
Vernon explains how he applies a principle like customer service to meet modern HR needs.
“With customer service, you employ outside-in thinking and really think about the people who use your services. This means empathizing with their experience and using quantitative and qualitative feedback to understand how they think and feel at key points in the customer journey. We can do the same thing with the people that work for us to improve the employee experience”
He uses a simple analogy he heard to explain how the employee experience can be thought of in ‘layers.’
“It’s similar to the ‘pass the parcel’ game, where you have to unwrap layers to get what you really want to in the middle. From a service perspective, the layers can be everything from the tone of the HR person you’re speaking with to their expertise to the processes and systems that are in place. For employees to get what they want - such as figuring out what a company’s paternity leave policy is - they have to go through all those layers. Our job is to make it easy, so they spend less time on HR and more time to spend with their customer.”
According to Vernon, a key element to making this process a truly employee-first experience ties back to human-centered design, which is another concept commonly used in the customer and marketing world.
“The people who use our services should be involved in the design of those experiences. They’re really going to know what’s best for them. For instance, we recently collaborated with our customer experience team, who are experts in people-focused designed, to improve our performance management process. We interviewed focus groups, mapped out the journey, and gauged feedback to redesign that experience. Another great resource is IDEO’s free course on human-centered design, which is something my team took two years ago and found to be valuable.”
With great data comes great responsibility
Currently, QBE collects employee data from a variety of sources: from automatic HR processes in the employee lifecycle to planned annual employee listening.
A refresher on terminology
AI - Artificial Intelligence. A broader term that includes lots of different technologies.
ML - Machine Learning. An example of a type of AI.
Vernon believes that AI - more specifically ML - will change the way companies use and collect data in a few years. QBE has conducted early experiments with chatbots and semantics. Currently, they’re also working on sentiment analytics using employee data.
However, there are many significant questions to consider with the increased uses of data in HR. For instance, how do employers make sure they’re using employee data ethically while maintaining privacy? Or how can companies ensure they’re using high-quality and robust data alongside cyber-security?
These are initiatives Vernon is already tackling at QBE, where he kicked off an internal project last year to build good people data governance internally and with suppliers.
As Vernon paraphrases, “With great data comes great responsibility.”
The future of HR
Given his fascination with the world of AI, Vernon thinks frequently about its impact on HR That’s why he started the website, Machines in Suits, which is a collection of articles on topics like AI, robotics, automation, and the effect these technologies may have on HR. He also considers how these technologies might change the way people-focused roles function five to ten years down the line.
Vernon doesn’t believe the fundamental role of HR, which is enabling and supporting people to achieve their potential, will change. But he does predict the way HR is delivered, and the technology and training around the role will look fairly different. Below are four of his predictions for the future of HR in the workplace.
Employees will call for better technology. “People outside of work have access to better technology than they do inside of work now, which never used to be the case. That’s why you’re going to hear growing demand from employees for access to consumer-grade tools and will see HR technology get better as a result,” says Vernon.
We will see a rise in assisted AI. According to Vernon, as with every other industrial revolution, some professions will be impacted massively by AI. “But I think for the majority of jobs, it’s going to be about assisting people to do better in their roles versus robots taking over the world. I hope we grasp the ethics part of it and think carefully about how we use AI.”
Data literacy will become crucial. As Vernon said before, data will become more important than ever - especially as leaders increasingly turn to data-driven insights. With this, data literacy and educating people on everything from people-related risk to cybersecurity to privacy and ethics will become a critical part of the HR role.
HR will become increasingly human. While it may initially seem contradictory to predict that HR will become more human with the rise of AI, it actually makes a lot of sense. According to Vernon, having AI assist parts of our role will open up more resources to focus on the people aspects of the job. “For instance,” says Vernon. “Companies are already delivering interventions to help employees manage mind and mood more effectively, which is why we’re seeing the rise of mindfulness in the workplace.” He believes these initiatives will only continue to grow in the future.
A huge thanks to Vernon for the fascinating conversation. Know another inspiring People Geek who would be great for our series? Nominate them as our next People Geek of the Month.