We spoke with Ed Pederson, Vice President of Product at Kelly, about developing products and services that feel relevant in a rapidly evolving landscape, predicting emerging trends within the industry, and guiding customers through their transformation journeys.
Read the full interview below. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
RIX: Can you tell us about yourself and your role at Kelly?
Ed Pederson: I am the Vice President of Product, which comprises two main functions. I lead product management, where we’re growing and differentiating our current products in the market today. Then there’s product development, which is all about the future. When somebody has an idea or a concept of what we can do as a company, they’ll kick it over to my team. We’ll vet the idea and run it through a formal product development lifecycle. We’ll either table the idea or bring it to market.
I’ve been with Kelly for five years now. The organization came together and said, “Hey, how do we take product development to the next level? How do we take the great ideas and pockets of innovation across the company and develop a formal process to bring them to life?”
We had colleagues develop great ideas in their microcosms, but we saw an opportunity to scale that across the entire company, especially after the big operating model change that we recently underwent. My group now spans across the entire company in this product development capacity. We develop products for KellyOCG, for our staffing organization, and so forth, providing the structure and rigor to launch products in a very intentional way.
We’re able to see across all those different business units and have the opportunity to say, “Hey, this team is doing well here. We can implement that over here.” We can now build on those connections.
We have realigned product development and product management as a part of our growth and strategy office. New product development had already been a top growth lever for the company, so we wanted to align underneath that function. And then in January of this year, I pulled over the product management folks, so now both current and new products sit together. We’ve been busy expanding and taking our focus to a multi-year journey for some of our more traditional product lines.
The goal is to get out of a year-by-year focus and instead ask questions like, “What will it take to grow this product line to $200 million? What are our competitors doing? How are we viewed in the marketplace and what differentiators do we need to bring?”
RIX: How does Kelly’s ongoing digital transformation efforts fit into those goals?
In regard to the digital impact of Kelly, we have a very robust IT organization running the business and the infrastructure that we have today. We have a lot of legacy systems and monuments within our organization. We’re going through a digital transformation with Bullhorn to upgrade where we’re at with our various staffing solutions. Our IT organization is running the business, and our business and operations groups are essentially living the business. My team sits in an exciting spot where we get to provide continuity between those groups.
When we take on a new technology, process, or product, we can communicate across those boundaries so that it’s not, “Here’s a piece of technology for you, go ahead and go use it.” Instead, we say, “Here’s why, here’s the value proposition, and here’s how you engage it.”
When we see that existing frameworks just won’t work, we adapt and adopt new solutions in order to further our transformation journey.
RIX: You mentioned how Kelly’s digital transformation both impacts and facilitates alignment across employees in the organization. How do you approach leveraging technology from the client’s and candidate’s perspectives?
Ed Pederson: We absolutely approach it from all of those areas. In our product development process, the very first stage is concept development. One of the critical steps we take is to create a client value proposition and a talent value proposition.
Go back to 1946, when we started and the industry was 100% talent focused.
Over time, the whole industry shifted to a 100% client focus. They’re the ones that pay bills and they’re the ones employing us. Now we’re swinging the pendulum back to somewhere in the middle, and everything we do has to have both a client value proposition and a talent value proposition – and the right technology to support that.
The developers that I have on my team understand how operations work today. They understand all the different pain points and we can design a future that caters to all of those challenges in a more optimized fashion.
RIX: Are there any emerging candidate or client trends that speak to where the industry is right now?
Ed Pederson: One of the big challenges that I had to address when I first started with product development is where to prioritize development. There’s always going to be opportunities to upgrade, develop, and differentiate your current products. But the big question in the sky is, “Where’s the next $500 million product line out there?” Try to answer that and you think, “Man, the sky is pretty big.”
With finite resources and money, you can only fish for those ideas in so many spots, so we wanted to create a focused framework for ourselves.
We observed this exciting dynamic on the customer side, where tried and true customers were making significant strategic shifts as companies.
Ford had announced plans to be a Smart City company and was doubling down on that vision. Toyota declared that they’re more than an automobile company; they’re a mobility company. They’re developing robotic arms and prosthetic limbs, and things that you don’t necessarily think about when you think of Toyota.
These companies had big multi-year aspirational strategy shifts, and they had a base of talent that was grounded in what they do today. That talent wasn’t necessarily equipped with the skillsets for the future visions of those companies. Their current talent doesn’t know how to develop prosthetic limbs; they’re not Smart City engineers and architects.
We saw an opportunity in our core focus areas to help our customers understand their current state. We could create true strategic workforce planning, where our customers can see where they want to go and what they need to do to get there. And reskilling is a big part of that.
We introduced the Kelly Certification Institute last year, and it was initially focused on life sciences. We have a huge specialty in that arena, working with almost all of the largest life science companies. We noticed a gap for workers in manufacturing and regulatory knowledge.
They need the right credentials, good manufacturing practices, cleanroom knowledge, data integrity—all of these critical skills.
Today we’ve trained over 2,000 Kelly temporary employees in the US and in Europe. We’re getting the data back now that shows this is a more efficient, effective, and profitable way for our customers to operate.
We saw this huge opportunity to help them on their specialty journey as it aligned to our own specialty journey. Now, on the talent side, the question we’re asking is, “How do we ensure that the talent is aligned with the future of these companies and not getting left behind?”
Research predicts that 70% of jobs are going to fundamentally change within the next ten years. How does talent walk that path with current or future employers?
Education is a big part of that too. As businesses create deeper specialty practices and opportunities for reskilling develop, talent can walk along that path with us.
RIX: What trends have you noticed in the wake of Covid-19 and its impact on the industry?
Ed Pederson: Obviously, Covid turned everything on its ear. The big story, of course, is that everybody transitioned to virtual working, which we’ve excelled at for some time. We adopted that model five years ago, so we were able to educate our customers on how to effectively do that.
Remote work is one of the many factors changing the way people look at their jobs. You can see, with the Great Resignation, there’s this massive market shift where talent is in the driver’s seat. They have the agency to determine what’s next in their career path. There’s a lot more gig work. The gig platforms are experiencing double-digit growth on a quarterly basis, which is huge.
You have a demographic shift in terms of the core group of employees who are now in the workforce and what they want out of work. You have to adapt to that. You can see the rise in popularity in concepts like self-scheduling platforms allowing people to make extra money on the side or providing more flexibility to when and how they work. Some remote workers are even secretly doing two full-time jobs! And these are all trends we’re monitoring and working on or launching products to address in the near future.
RIX: Some of these products and initiatives you’ve mentioned, like the Kelly Certification Institute, likely predated some of the market conditions that have made them especially relevant right now. When you’re in the right place at the right time, how much of that is the byproduct of innovation, and how much is the result of agility and adapting to the landscape?
Ed Pederson: It’s a combination. Some of the things that we work on in the long term— those with 12-month or 18-month product development processes—can get flipped on their head when something like Covid happens.
We actually had one example where the whole market essentially dropped out at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a situation where we realized we needed to halt development and wait for that demand to come back.
Last year, we also developed a rapid product development process, which meant that in 30 days we needed to go to market with the idea. We would generate an idea and determine the minimum viable product, price it, and create marketing materials in 30 days or less.
We put many ideas out there, and we had some that could produce millions of dollars and others that didn’t do anything. It enabled us to experiment and build a culture shift within Kelly that stresses that it’s okay to fail. With that volume of new ideas, we knew that some of them were going to fail and some were going to succeed.
Often, when you do get the timing just right, it’s because you have unique foresight and strategic planning that pays off. Sometimes the timing is especially relevant in ways you can’t predict.
Last year we introduced a product focused on diversity and inclusion called Kelly Discover. It had been in development for well over 12 months. Obviously, this was a relevant product to begin with, but the social unrest and calls for change last year coalesced in a way that really primed companies to do something about it in ways they hadn’t explored in the past. CEOs couldn’t just declare that diversity and inclusion were important; they needed to take action.
Kelly Discover’s focus was very tangible, which aligned well with that mentality. For example, we found ourselves in this very unique spot among philanthropic organizations that are supporting talent on the autism spectrum and overlooked individuals in poorer urban areas but don’t have direct access to the requisitions the customers really need.
With neurodiverse workers, for example, what we do with Discover is say, “These are the neurodiverse candidates and the organizations that work with them. These are the roles that these particular candidates are really well-suited for and really good at. Do we have your agreement that if one of those roles opens up through either MSP or staffing, you’ll flag it to the engagement manager and ask them to consider a candidate from a neurodiverse background?”
We can connect to the organizations that are bringing that talent and add in additional services around it. The hiring manager gets training on how to interview and manage those individuals. We provide coaching to the workers and equip them to succeed.
There were all these steps we took to make this engagement successfully. We planned this out months in advance, but it also came out at a time when the world needed it, even more than we could have predicted.
RIX: Are there any trends that your team has identified as important for the future that clients or talent might be sleeping on?
Ed Pederson: Yeah. There are a number of them, but I’ll talk about one customer example at the forefront of my mind right now. For years, there has been a conversation in the industry around total talent management.
It’s the Nirvana state where customers can get complete insight into their workforce and workforce challenges, form a strategic workforce plan, and optimize and change the dials to maximize the productivity of that environment. When most customers think about this, they’re usually just imagining their full-time workforce, not contingent workers and temporary workers. Most haven’t explored beyond that.
So one of the first things that I instituted at Kelly was a client advisory board. When we had that first conversation with them, they said, “It’s a great idea, but easier said than done.”
In response, we’ve taken a unique approach, I think, relative to our competitors. A total talent management solution sounds like a really heavy lift. Just what it takes to install an MSP for contingent temporary workers is enough of a change management issue on its own. So to say, “I’m going to touch your full-time workers, I’m going to touch your purchasing systems, I’m going to do it all,” they’re just not ready for that. But they are ready to take a step in the journey.
We’ve structured our products in such a way that we will meet them at their own step in their journey and then we can reveal to them what the journey could be.
It’s “Hey, you have a crisis with your platform for temporary workers, let’s fix that first. Now, what about your independent contractors? From what we know about your business, you’re exposed in the case of an audit and we can help you with that. Now let’s tackle that next.” And we can systematically layer these stages throughout their journey to help them simplify and improve their operations at their own pace.
RIX: Our trends research has revealed a huge leap forward in businesses embracing automation. Kelly has recently launched several successful products in this sphere, such as Kelly Helix. Have you noticed less hesitation or more openness to automation, AI, and other similar technologies?
Ed Pederson: When you think about automation, there are essentially three different opportunities.
First, how do we automate Kelly’s own products to optimize efficiency? We released a product for our PO that is a high-volume, fully automated solution for blue-collar workers, called Boost.
It was a way for us to enhance the customer experience, enhance the talent experience, and to be able to handle a large volume for a particular role within a customer base that is rich with automation.
The second area is the talent we place. Can we bring different automation features along with them to create micro-automations that make their own personal lives quicker, faster, and easier?
The third part, that I believe you’re speaking to, is how to bring digital automation directly to the customer so that you’re affecting their processes and their future. And this is another one of those topics where people love to talk about it conceptually, but then they don’t know where to start.
We’re developing discovery tools that help show them the way. We can go into a customer and say, “For your setup and your industry, here are some focus areas that have been successful with other customers that you might want to think about.”
That’s where I find that Kelly can be successful. We can demystify some of these daunting topics and say, “Hey, I know you get the concept of automation. This is what it means for you. This is how we can specifically guide you, so give it a try.”
It’s one thing to capture their interest with industry buzz, or present numbers and savings. But it’s a whole different ballgame if you can say, “This is what we’ve done with your environment specifically.”
RIX: When it comes to demystifying automation and encouraging the implementation of a digital transformation throughout the organization, how do you approach that internally?
Ed Pederson: It’s a cultural change. The difficulty level to drive change at a large organization like Kelly is magnified in some ways. We have a large volume of employees, a tremendous variance in location and work culture, and so on.
You have to overcome this communication mountain, and then you have to influence the change around it. For automation in particular, back in 2017, we had a group come in that really opened our eyes to identify the tangible opportunities with automation within the company.
We then structured a whole group around automation enablement. Within a couple of years, they implemented 100 different bots that save hundreds of thousands of hours. It was a great example of us drinking our own Kool-Aid even before we brought it to our customers.
To use Helix as an example, we’re implementing it inside of Kelly. The theory is that if we see this as an opportunity in the market, the chances are that there’s an opportunity within Kelly.
Other times, we need to protect the change. Last year we implemented an incubator concept. We decided we wanted some key initiatives to live outside of our traditional operating model.
We didn’t apply the same expectations we would apply to a staffing brand that we had for decades. We gave them the breathing room that you would give a small business. And we ensured they had the budget, dedicated headcount, the mission, the vision, and the drive of a dynamic leader that will grow it. At some point, you can bring that incubator more formally into the company.
For more insights, visit Kelly’s website or connect with Ed on LinkedIn.