Rebranding in a Digital Age

Large companies that have long relied on past reputations now find themselves needing a different message to attract the tech talent they seek.

Monday, February 13, 2017
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For most of the 20th century, the Ford Motor Co. was practically synonymous with an Industrial Revolution that was spearheaded by its iconic founder, Henry Ford. He all but invented the assembly line as well as the middle-class living wage for his workers, amid the massive smokestacks that rose from his sprawling factories near the shores of Lake Michigan.

Today, there's a lot about the firm that Henry Ford would barely recognize as the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker rebrands itself as "a mobility company" -- one that is heavily researching self-driving cars, developing its FordPass mobile-phone app and working to make those factories environmentally sustainable. Behind the scenes, that transition from brute-force industry to high-tech innovator poses a special challenge for human resources -- attracting the top technology talent to make that changeover happen.

"I have to spend three or four times more investment on certain types of software engineers than I would on a welding engineer," says Felicia Fields, Ford's vice president for human resources and services. And by investment, Fields isn't just referring to dollars, although pay certainly can be one area in which an industrial giant such as Ford faces pressure to compete for talent with Silicon Valley icons such as Google or Facebook. Instead, its HR leaders are expending more effort on creating a climate in which young, rising tech stars can feel that they're making a difference, through good works and creative new products that will be sold worldwide.

Specifically, Ford woos talented software engineers with the opportunity to work for a global company with operations on every major continent. Philanthropic opportunities include the chance to develop high-tech solutions for the nonprofits working to rebuild Detroit, or the chance to develop the new generation of fully autonomous vehicles that will take what Henry Ford's generation called "the horseless buggy" to the next level.

Kiersten Robinson, Ford's HR executive director for the Americas and corporate staff, says the automaker typically asks its new high-tech hires why they chose Ford, and the answers are consistent, even in different markets. "They talk about Ford as a highly ethical company to work for, that what we do in the community is really important for graduates who want to be contributing" to the advancement of society and technology.

Ford's challenge is hardly unique. Many of the nation's largest companies (see HRE's 2017 Top 100 chart) are also some of its most reputable icons of the past, with storied manufacturing histories. But the massive transition from the 20th-century industrialized economy to a high-tech, fully integrated world -- in which computers and microchips control everything from pick-up trucks to refrigerators, and where services ranging from delivering the news to preparing income taxes now depend heavily upon software -- has challenged these corporations to change many things about the way they do business. And HR departments typically find themselves on the front lines of recruiting and retaining the workers needed to power that transformation.

"We're seeing a major evolution in the workload for HR, so that now it's, 'How can we create a great culture?' " says Jack Cullen, CEO of Modis, a leading information-technology staffing firm, noting a shift away from a 1990s strategy of simply trying to financially outbid Silicon Valley rivals.

In such a competitive environment for skilled workers, especially as the economy has steadily improved over the course of the 2010s, some of these traditional companies with a storied manufacturing history are putting a strong emphasis on rebranding themselves to the general public -- including job seekers -- as rooted in the new high-tech culture.

Telling a New Story

Arguably, no company has made a bigger splash on the high-tech rebranding front than General Electric. Over the last year, GE has spent at least $2.5 million, according to Forbes, on gently humorous ad campaigns focused on earnest young millennials such as "Owen," who tells his skeptical friends and family that his new engineering job with GE will "change the world."

The GE ads were reportedly inspired by various studies, including a 2014 report by Deloitte that found younger millennial workers were wary of companies associated with "manufacturing," rating it as an unstable career path and ranking it seventh out of seven categories in desirability. Forbes noted that job applications to GE spiked eight-fold after the ads started running.

"What they've done is brilliant," says Cullen of the GE spots. He notes that even some older technology firms have been forced to rebrand their organizations and workflows in order to compete against Silicon Valley or Seattle stalwarts such as Apple or Amazon, not to mention the allure of smaller high-tech start-ups. He cites the example of IBM, which, in the last few years, has successfully shed its staid image as "Big Blue" to promote its newer and cooler technology such as its Watson cognitive computing platform. Cullen also points to the field of healthcare, where the push for new technologies such as digital record-keeping under the Affordable Care Act has required HR executives to rethink how their firms recruit talent.

Scott Olson, a co-leader of the people and organizations practice at the consultancy PwC, says technological skills are becoming so ingrained in successful business strategy that many firms are looking less to recruit workers with a specific skill and more for those who can adapt to multiple tech challenges. "They are casting a wider net for the talent that they seek, with a focus on adaptability and versatility as opposed to recruiting for specific skills," Olson says.

Another company that neither consumers nor jobseekers would initially think of as a high-technology concern is Honeywell International Inc., which makes a vast array of industrial and home products -- most famously, the round thermostat that's found in many homes, but also items such as security systems or dehumidifiers. What many people don't realize is that these household devices are now frequently connected and powered by sophisticated software, especially as appliances move to what's known as the Internet of Things.

"The truth is that more than half of our sales are in software," says Mark James, Honeywell's senior vice president of HR, procurement and communications. He notes that about half of the firm's 23,000 engineers work in software or related fields. Indeed, from James' perspective, Silicon Valley companies are now looking to get more into physical products -- such as Google's Nest Learning Thermometer, a direct competitor with Honeywell -- and compete with traditional firms. Still, he says, the Morris Plains, N.J.-based firm continues to focus on promoting its tech savvy and making its work environment more appealing to sought-after tech talent.

"Even though Silicon Valley is a wonderful place, not everyone wants to live in Silicon Valley," James says. "People who came from the Midwest or Kansas City reach a point where maybe they'd rather return than share [an apartment]." Honeywell, he says, isn't the kind of firm that would air a branding TV ad campaign as GE has done, as much of its sales are business-to-business. But he notes the firm's main corporate citizenship project, Honeywell Hometown Solutions, has a major science and math component that leads thousands of school kids to associate the Honeywell name with innovation in the STEM fields.

The Service Appeal

Indeed, most experts find that such opportunities for community service, or the sense that their work is closely connected to broader social change, have become critical in making a company appealing to a high-tech workforce, especially among the millennial generation.

Erica Volini, the global HR transformation leader for Deloitte Consulting, says she knows of one tech-oriented company in which the workers -- with the support of management -- even got involved in efforts to fight a proposed anti-LGBTQ-rights bill in their home state. Encouraging use of social media, she says, is also critical. "It's about sharing information, communicating, and the impact the company is making in [its] community," Volini says. "Companies spend a lot of time talking about their values and taking action."

At Ford, the renaissance of Detroit -- where the company is currently working to double the size of its research and engineering center in the coming years from 12,000 employees to 24,000 -- is a selling point, especially the opportunity to take part in programs such as the new Thirty Under 30 initiative. That program gives high-performing millennials a chance to work with charities such as the United Way of Southeastern Michigan or the Salvation Army to help develop solutions that often center on software and other newer technologies. "The leadership skills we build are not just useful at Ford, but useful in their whole life -- and we want people to bring their whole selves to work," says Fields.

Like some other traditional industrial firms, Ford has also established a presence in Silicon Valley -- opening in 2015 a research and innovation center in Palo Alto that has grown to roughly 200 employees, all working on self-driving cars and other high-tech projects. At the same time, Fields notes that Ford is increasingly relying on 21st-century communications to diversify where work is done around the globe, something that opens the door to tech talent in new and different locations. She notes that a lot of corporate accounting that was performed in Dearborn will now be done in Chennai, India. "The more that you value your diversity and understand your biases and your predispositions about how that work had to be done by whom or where, the more you let those things go, and the more options you have," she says.

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Wherever the work is done, established industrial companies such as Ford -- while they may find it difficult to match tech giants such as Apple's spaceship-style headquarters or Facebook's palatial digs with a nine-acre park on the roof -- are also transforming the workspace for their own technology teams. Last year, the auto giant began work on a sprawling new campus in Dearborn that will be ringed with walking trails and bike paths and will cut energy use by about 50 percent; Ford's Robinson says the collaborative workspace is "part of a multi-pronged approach that is really [about] making employees' lives better." At Honeywell's Morris Plains, N.J., headquarters, crews ripped the cubicles out of circa-1950 buildings and instituted open seating for workers so they would "interact with each other," says James.

The Spread of IT

Of course, large manufacturing giants or industrial conglomerates aren't the only established firms finding themselves more organized around software or analytics. Traditional media companies, hospitals and other healthcare providers, or services such as income-tax preparation typically find that IT is the fastest-growing function.

"All companies need to be tech companies in this day and age," says Kristi Macaluso, vice president of human resources at H&R Block, the national tax-services company, which relies almost solely on computer-based solutions today. H&R's main headquarters in Kansas City may be a considerable distance from the bustle of Silicon Valley, but to Macaluso and her counterparts, that's a selling point.

"Kansas City has become a Middle America IT destination," Macaluso says. "We work alongside other companies in the region to increase the overall awareness of Kansas City as a place to live and work." That means marketing the Missouri metropolis as a place where young millennials can still enjoy a trendy urban environment -- but with perks like easy parking and affordable housing.

"Another similarity," she says, "to what industrial counterparts are doing: By developing software to make H&R Block customers' lives easier during tax season, the company's top technicians understand how their work directly affects other people," a feature also attractive to high-tech recruits. Macaluso says that's part of the firm's recognition that "employees today are not just about punching a clock and leaving at the end of the day."

PwC's Olson agrees that the idea of what some call "the purpose-driven corporation" -- with a tangible mission and widely known products -- is increasingly becoming a lure for high-tech workers who once might have honed specialized, narrow technical skills at lesser-known start-ups. "Now, suddenly, you're not just coding for coding's sake -- but you're building the next generation of automobiles, or whatever," he says.

While a lot of the focus on high-tech transformation at traditional companies has fallen on attracting the most promising recruits out of college or grad school, experts note the additional challenge is to retain these workers -- especially given the mobility of the high-tech workforce. Experts say it's incumbent upon HR to come up with a new focus on career development that will keep them engaged.

"A lot of retention comes down to, 'How am I improving my personal worth and personal value -- am I picking up new skills?' " says Cullen. Those types of opportunities often outweigh more traditional salary and benefit perks and often hinge more on a belief in the company's mission, he says, adding, "It's more than, 'I like working here because there's a foosball table.' "

Top HR executives and consultants say the profession often doesn't get the attention it deserves as the focal point for today's tech transformation. Says Fields: "HR is really at an inflection point where it matters so much to our business and what we deliver." She agrees with others on the biggest challenge going forward: hiring the right people and then creating the climate for a truly flexible workplace that can adapt to new technologies.

"How do you skill people to be more complex learners rather than just provide fixed solutions?" she asks rhetorically. "Because by the time you create something, the world's already evolved to a different place. So, we're keeping [the workforce] thinking more about where the world is moving -- how do they keep their skills updated, how do we shift and align our capabilities with our business strategy?"

Senior Editor Jack Robinson contributed to this story.


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