Our series of interviews with HR luminaries continues with this conversation with Merle Ballaigues, President of Thomas North America. From breaking ground in the online space to the latest advancements in collaboration and succession planning tools, Merle brings her experience, insight and pioneering perspective to bear in this fresh look at the evolution of the HR industry.
You’ve spent the past 25 years of your career with Thomas, what made you stay so long?
I joined Thomas in 1997 as a consultant in Canada and I was immediately attracted by the possibility of impacting people's lives, seeing lightbulbs go on and making a difference. Twenty-five years later when I look back over my career, Thomas has given me opportunities to live my dreams and achieve in my career far beyond what I thought I could. I was in a fortunate place in 2002 to be able to purchase the Canadian distributorship and then in 2003, was offered the opportunity to work in the USA as well. Since then, I've worked across North America.
When I cast my mind back to 1997, the internet was coming online for businesses and in 1999, Thomas became the first assessment company to develop a web-based offering. We pioneered assessments on the web platform by launching the first online hub. Prior to that we had been either using paper-based assessments or a set of fifteen floppy disc that you'd have to load to get the technology on someone's computer, which now sounds antiquated and was very time consuming. We were at the forefront and built an incredible foundation for the Thomas business that has evolved into a global company in over 60 countries.
One of the key aspects of working in the Thomas business is the enjoyment of building client relationships, which have lasted the test of time. We have a diverse, very active client base of mainly HR professionals. The trust we have with our clients has been built over the 40 years of Thomas is a significant part of the Thomas brand proposition. Today we see many start-up technology companies working in the assessment space and incredible track record, and the reputation we’ve built is a competitive advantage for us.
I’ve enjoyed seeing people grow and learn through using these tools. Now we are looking forward to launching Perform in North America propelling us into the next exciting phase. Thomas is constantly evolving as a company, and I think that's what has kept me around for so long. There are always new people and new business challenges. Thomas has ensured that our suite of psychometric assessments is valid, reliable and unbiased to age, culture and gender which is important and what keeps employees interested is the evolving business needs of our clients and how we help then find assessment solutions that deliver business results. Today post pandemic, we've seen how the tools help with remote working, and what an impact they we have when we deliver online workshops and accreditation training, which has largely replaced in-person learning.
What have been some of the highlights during your career with Thomas?
It sounds simple but making psychometric tools available as a mobile application has been significant. The fact that our tools work and are reliable, valid and unbiased is crucial. A major highlight was in 2007 where we landed a contract with a large telecommunications client who was working on the Taleo platform, (which was later bought by Oracle). We launched Thomas into the integration market and for several years we were the sponsor for Talao and pioneered integrations with significant measurable business results like reduced attrition and enhanced performance metrics related to helping this client recruit best fit candidates. Ray Reed’s insight to launch a web-based platform in 1999 revolutionised the space.
When Martin Reed took over as CEO he realized a vision to add assessment tools to our offering which continued to provide a competitive advantage for Thomas. I think we've held our own as an independent assessment company. We haven't been held to ransom through being part of a publicly traded company. With our board Palamon we have a lot of freedom. I've really enjoyed being able to learn about other cultures, meet people from around the world and work on some major global projects.
It’s also been thrilling for me to see my knowledge get downloaded and adapted. The mantra we have in the business is ‘first you become a consultant, then you learn from one and then you teach one’. I accomplished a lot in sales but then it became more about how I could help other people grow their careers. A huge highlight has been to watch my team grow, build their families or buy a property, hit their goals and their milestones. A lot of our North American team have been with us for more than ten years. For example, Julia who joined my team in 1997 is still employed at Thomas. So those are the highlight for me.
Amid ‘The Great Resignation’, can you tell us the secret to the long tenures in your team?
I think Thomas attracts certain type of employee who wants to learn, grow and make a difference. A lot of my success is building a wonderful and diverse team and working with terrific clients in the HR space. These are professional people who care about people and aligning people with business. As a proponent of strength-based leadership, I've seen how Thomas’ suite of assessments opens people up like a flower. You can work with a team who are closed and don't trust each other, and then you start sharing assessments to understand what makes people tick and what ticks them off, and most of their leadership issues get resolved.
My team have always been very proud to be part of Thomas. The company attracts great people. Across the globe when you meet distributors and their teams, Thomas people have a certain way about them. They want to help and be in an industry where they make a difference. Thomas people are also trustworthy. We have clients from twenty years ago, who are still clients today. It’s incredible how long our clients remain active with us. We've never had a legal issue of any kind. Thomas teams around the world, make Thomas personal for them. It's their job and they are part of the team, but it becomes very personal. We can mesh our own personal brand with the Thomas brand which in a huge corporate entity you're not able to do. There is room for creativity and for reinventing yourself with Thomas.
What do you think have been the biggest developments in the HR industry during your career?
The pandemic has been the biggest accelerator for workplace transformation in my lifetime. I have to mention that, even though there has been so much talk about it. HR has had to be front and centre of that transformation and is constantly reinventing their role. HR has had to deal with employees coping with isolation, escalating stress and and mental health issues as well as moving to remote or hybrid work models. They are dealing with all sorts of factors that we didn't before. Employees still have a professional relationship with HR, but I think it also become a very personal relationship. Now HR is looking at “the whole person” and things like increasing mental health benefits and extending reach into employees’ families, because if they're happy with their family life they are also happy at work.
When I started in 1997, HR was very much in administrative function. They took care of payroll, vacation and benefits. Psychometric assessments were primarily delivered and debriefed by psychologists. Ray and Doreen Reed had the vision to pioneer mainstream adoption of assessments by providing accreditation for HR professionals and user-friendly assessments. Suddenly we found that HR was less administrative and played more of a consultative role. I’ve seen the whole movement of the industry from an administrative to a strategic function. Much of that transformation has obviously been fuelled by technology. Huge talent acquisition platforms were launched which automated many of the administrative tasks and changed the recruitment process. HR could become brand ambassadors and interview in a very different way. Taleo was founded in 1999 and ICIMS in 2000. Then in 2010 those players started being acquired by huge companies. Oracle acquired Talao, SAP acquired Success Factors and IBM acquired Kenexa. There was this flurry of acquisitions and suddenly the online talent acquisition space blew up. That was a huge development throughout the early 2000s.
I think the introduction of online learning is also a major future trend. We've seen online learning replacing classroom learning very effectively. The big online providers like Cornerstone, Absorb, Rippling and Mindflash are even challenging the learning components of talent acquisition platforms like Oracle and SAP. HR has had to transform as online platforms have emerged. With technology replacing many administrative components of work, there is a huge focus on human skills for leaders as they lead their teams in this new world of work. HR his looking for the kind of leadership development that can help leaders build trust, empathy and social awareness. We have also seen the importance of diversity and the launch of DEI. Now there is a whole new opportunity for HR to implement those types of programmes. Jobs are being created in HR that didn’t exist before, like Chief Diversity Officer. In the last 10 years, the highest-level role in HR has shifted from VP of HR to CHRO, or Chief Human Resources Officer. HR has been placed at the executive table, which is a powerful position. Some people say that Human Resources will disappear, but I think there is still a great future for HR, provided that the HR teams looks to the future, keep current with technology in the HR space and continue to build strong partnerships with their businesses. I think that understanding people analytics is going to be one of the hottest skills for HR professionals going forward, and this will leveraging new technologies without losing sight of the human side of things.
What you think are the immediate challenges for HR?
The 9-to-5, in-office workweek that has underpinned work life for nearly a century has gone through a radical change. The pandemic catalysed us to think about work in very different ways, especially about workspaces, work flexibility, remote communication and managing and supporting remote workforces. Besides obvious challenges with corporate real estate that may no longer be needed, corporate leaders are wrestling with questions about how hybrid work will affect company culture, especially when diversity, equity and inclusion are at the top of everyone’s minds. We've had an incredible uptake of our Remote Worker Report, because it spells out how to manage people who are working remotely, which is actually quite a difficult thing to get right. In the office, working in=person, culture is quite organic – you meet people at the coffee station and you chat. Building a culture post-pandemic must be much more intentional and that is something HR is going to be involved with.
There is the potential for hybrid working to create a two-tiered experience for employees, whereby those who work out of home might be disadvantaged by the lack of contact with senior executives. Leadership, even if only subconsciously, may favour those who spend more time in the office. We know that the pandemic has derailed a lot of careers. Most job leavers have been women who have had to step back to look after their families. HR now needs to find ways of creating equity so that people don’t feel that if you are in the office, you get preferential treatment. HR professionals will also be dealing with the post pandemic stress that employees are experiencing. 78% of participants in an American Psychological Association survey of 3,409 adults said the pandemic was a significant source of stress. Workers are feeling burned out, and cite multiple stressors, including the lack of separation between work and home, unmanageable workloads, and worries over job security.
With a recession looming, what trends do you anticipate will govern HR’s future?
Having gone through the 2008 recession, we toned to be prepared to work harder and become more creative. HR will need to deal with the impact of the recession on morale. I read a statistic from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): in a 2022 survey, 70% of employed Americans said they would prefer to work remotely on a full-time or part-time basis if given the option. I think that is probably the most significant thing that will drive the future of work. People will work outside the office, online. Technology and technology applications are going to grow.
Stepping further into the future, I like to follow Josh Bersin, who predicts that in 2022 and beyond digital tools will improve, along with the emergence of the metaverse. Bersin predicts that there will be many metaverses, such as a gaming metaverse to a commerce metaverse. One of the examples he shared was a utility company that developed virtual reality learning with the leader in that space, a company called Strivr. The utility company were having problems teaching people how to complete technical repairs inside a manhole. It was risky and expensive to take trainees into these underground areas. The virtual reality training teaching employees how to behave in an emergency has been a huge success at A low cost.
Another development that I've been hearing a lot about is the merging of talent mobility within a company with their external talent acquisition initiatives. I think that this is a very exciting opportunity. There is a platform called Gloat that specifically looks at internal employees who want move around, go part-time, secure a different full-time job or looking for mentoring. To move a talented internal person around would typically take HR three to four weeks to manually ask around without the data. On this talent mobility platform Gloat, it takes thirty seconds to get a different job and its self-serve. We all have to stay current with technology - all of us - not just HR but businesses in general.
As we launch Thomas Perform in North America, we must make sure it integrates with talent mobility and learning management platforms. The learning management market is also exploding. Ten years ago, learning management systems were just a nice idea, but now that market is blowing up.s we advance, we are going to need different skills. These platforms are providing that opportunity in a self-serve, easy-to-consume way that aligns with workforces of the future and they give HR a way of tracking what people do. Just recently we had a client who wanted to take one of our tools and couple it with their learning management system so they could track the development progress of their leaders.
We have to look at our tools going forward as a vehicle. They have to work quickly and integrate with AI-driven and virtual reality environments. I really believe that these environments are the future and successful companies are jumping on these new opportunities. Next year Microsoft is going to launch a product called Mesh for Teams, which will allow you to replace your video presence with an avatar, create virtual rooms and implement 3D spaces in teams. As an aside, the use of avatars is a fascinating development, because gamers have found that avatars allow them to say and do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. When you are using an avatar, you may be more expressive and honest because you feel more psychologically safe. You aren’t interrupted by someone’s physical appearance. People with physical and mental challenges who may not want to appear on camera as themselves, but as an avatar they can take on the world. These technologies make it possible to have a conference with a hundred people and move around as if we were in a conference room. I don't understand exactly how that's going to happen, but I say let's look to the future. What does that hold for Thomas? I think we’ll take our place there and we’ve just got to work towards that and keep adapting to stay current and relevant.