Airswift: automation and human centricity in recruitment
Business Chief talks to Janette Marx, CEO of Airswift, about the effects of digital transformation on recruitment and retention, and what the future holds.
In 1899, French artist Jean-Marc Côté was among a team of illustrators commissioned to create a series of drawings to commemorate the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. The series, originally printed as inserts for cigar boxes (and then later reprinted, but never sold, as postcards - science fiction author Isaac Asimov reportedly owned the only surviving set) took the artists’ best guess at how technology would change our lives by the advent of the 21st century.
The subject matter of En L'An 2000 is, for the most part, spectacularly off the mark. Firefighters battle flames while flying through the air on bat wings, deep sea divers ride giant seahorses through the ocean and students have the contents of history books transferred directly into their brains via psychic helmets. Endearingly hopeful and bizarre, Côté and his fellow artists’ work does betray just how hard it is to predict where the next wave of technological developments will take us.
In 1995, renowned astronomer and author Clifford Stoll wrote in an article for Newsweek that “the truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” He also vociferously argued that there was no such thing as a future where people would buy things over the internet, or read books and magazines online. “Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities,” he continued. “Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.” 17 years after the article’s publication, Newsweek became an exclusively online publication. Obviously, the future is not something to be predicted lightly.
However, one or two predictions made by En L'An 2000 came partly true. Several of the illustrations portray a world in which a single worker sits, comfortably pushing buttons, as automated machinery does the work of a dozen laborers. In this respect, at least, Côté was entirely on the money. Automation has completely changed the way in which people work, reaching further and further into aspects of our jobs and changing the culture of work forever. While organisations like the Office for National Statistics predict that, in the UK, as many as 1.5mn jobs are at risk of being eliminated by automation, a greater number of thought leaders believe that increased automation (and digitalisation in general) only highlights the continued need for the human element in business.
“There is a lot of automation in sourcing now, a lot of technology that companies use within their applicant tracking systems to interact with people applying for jobs, and engage with them via automated responses,” says Janette Marx, CEO of Airswift. “The piece that's often missing is the personal touch.” Founded in 1979, Airswift is an international workforce solutions provider within the energy, process and infrastructure industries. Headquartered in Houston, Texas, the company has over 800 employees and 6,000 contractors operating in more than 50 countries. “We're specialists in industries where companies, no matter what country they're in around the world, have the challenge of trying to source the right talent,” Marx explains. “We're not only experts in identifying the right talent for our clients, but also experts in mobilising that talent wherever it’s needed. Whether it's locally, nationally or globally, we do everything from making sure people have a place to live, feel that they are welcomed into a new country and understand the culture, to helping find schools for their kids.”
Airswift partners with some of the largest companies around the world to solve talent sourcing, recruitment and retention challenges in any number of new and existing markets. In terms of the ability to comment on the effect of digital transformation and innovation on the modern workforce, few are in a better position than Marx. “The biggest change in the talent sourcing world is, if you take a step back, how digital transformation will change the interaction between employer and future employee,” she says. “From a sourcing point of view, the medium has changed so much, from ads in the newspaper to online job boards to the invention of LinkedIn and so on. There are a lot of different ways to attract candidates to different companies.” The increased digitalisation of the recruitment space, according to Marx, has radically altered the size of the net that companies can cast. This is where automation becomes so important. “We can use chatbots and other types of automation to make sure that we're reaching the right audience. There are companies using chatbots to pre-screen candidates to make sure they are qualified before doing an actual interview,” elaborates Marx. “It's really broken down a lot of barriers and globalised our outlook, especially if the skill you’re sourcing is niche, specific or hard to find.”
However, at the heart of recruitment is still the human relationship. “When a person decides to leave a job to go to another job, that's a really big decision. Facilitating and navigating the thought process surrounding that change is where real recruiters come in to help connect the dots between the employer and the job seeker,” Marx explains. “The digital world is coming into it, but you still need a human element in the recruitment process.”
Digital transformation is not only changing the way that companies attract talent. Marx notes that, as the human capital space is increasingly reshaped by the accelerating pace of innovation, the strategies and values companies use to retain their talent are becoming increasingly people-centric. “Retention is a really important piece, especially with where the unemployment levels sit around the world right now,” she says. “There are a lot of measures companies can take to increase their retention and employee engagement, to really train and develop their people.” More and more, Marx finds, career progression is the number one reason people switch jobs, with opportunities for training and development coming a close second. The global workforce is as aware of the pace of change as anyone, and prioritises personal development in order to keep up.
In the same way that Côté and Stoll struggled to accurately envision where technology would take humanity, the next five to 10 years are a time shrouded in mystery, brimming with the possibility of rapid advancements and new challenges to face. Marx herself is brimming with optimism. “The future is going to be really, really interesting with regard to how we balance human interaction with technology and how the technology will support that overall experience,” she enthuses. “I can’t wait to see where the next five years take us, particularly in terms of communications. It would be nice to have holograms,” she says, somewhat wistfully.
For more information on business topics in the United States, please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief USA.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.