The coronavirus pandemic has not been kind to the food and drinks industry. It forced restaurants, bars, pubs, and clubs to close their doors during much of the past year.
One of the world’s largest brewers AB InBev – which owns brands like Budweiser, Corona, and Stella Artois and employs more than 160,000 people across the world — was no exception.
“We have a business which is about bringing people together, [but] in the pandemic and lockdowns, people cannot get together,” explains global vice-president of people continuity Toon van der Veer.
However, the sector has been incredibly agile. Many businesses pivoted quickly to at-home services, including takeaway or meal kits of their recipes for people to cook at home.
AB InBev, like most drinks brands, quickly realized customers were still keen to buy beer online or in supermarkets that remained open throughout the pandemic.
“Our customers and consumers are modernizing – and we are following,” notes van der Veer. As a result of the shift to online retail, AB InBev is updating and re-shaping its sales model for the future. This agility is part of the reason why AB InBev’s 2020 sales performance was better than expected.
AB INBEV Pilots HR tech solutions
When it comes to its people and HR strategy, AB InBev’s strategy largely emulates the way in which it thinks about its customers.
The brewer engages in employee listening — with the help of HR tech supplier Perceptyx – in order to gauge sentiment.
Today’s need for agility depends on trial and error, and van der Veer says the company usually relies on pilots before fully committing to rolling out new HR technology solutions to its global workforce.
“We try things and see what works. We also stop certain pilots either because things didn’t get traction or we feel they don’t really fit what we’re trying to do.”
Ultimately, AB InBev’s HR priorities center around empowering teams and leaders to be their best selves.
As a result, the company is committed to using technology that actually “solves a problem and it makes [employees] feel happier, more fulfilled and productive at work”.
BetterUp as a case study
BetterUp has been a huge hit with AB InBev’s employees and van der Veer himself – who told UNLEASH he takes part in all of AB InBev’s pilots to gain first-hand experience of the HR tech solutions.
Some of the female leaders going through the BetterUp pilot described it as “lifechanging” and said they wouldn’t mind paying for it themselves in order to continue using the coaches.
As a result, AB InBev decided to scale the product further and include other groups of employees. Van der Veer notes that returning parents is one particular group BetterUp is being rolled out to. This is because, in the past, AB InBev has experienced “friction” around the first few weeks when parents return to work; “we lost some employees during that process”.
Van der Veer notes: “BetterUp has a model where it connects the line manager with the returning parent to really make sure that landing [and] the first six weeks goes smoothly.”
AB INBev’s Challenges with upskilling tech
Of course, not all of AB InBev’s pilots are as successful as the BetterUp one. Van der Veer mentions some issues that AB InBev has had with internal talent marketplace tech before it started using Gloat.
The previous solution – which van der Veer didn’t name – was launched too soon, before the business was 100% ready and had all its levers in place. “We tried [that platform] for 18 months with very little traction”; as a result, the HR team stopped using the product and decided to have a rethink.
At this point, they stumbled across Gloat “because [it provided]…opportunities to identify what skills people have and how you empower people to build skills”.
Moving forward with Gloat, however, van der Veer notes, “we’re going to have to make sure that we listen to our employees to understand what it solves and what it doesn’t solve”. Thereby ensuring the tech is not more of a hindrance than a help to AB InBev’s workers.
Actually, in general, learning and development has really been brought to the forefront of AB InBev’s HR strategy in the pandemic.
This is because remote working and the transition to Zoom made it possible for AB InBev to “deliver learning and development on a larger scale”.
Van der Veer explains that before, in the pre-pandemic world, “you would do a classroom with 200 people”.
But because of Zoom, “your reach all of a sudden becomes thousands instead of hundreds, which is an amazing opportunity from a learning and development point of view”.
Pioneering new, emerging solutions
Interestingly, AB InBev does not just engage with the known players in the HR tech space. It is also works with emerging players like MIT’s Culture X.
Founded by father and son duo Don and Charlie Sull, Culture X relies on natural language processing (NLP) to help companies make the best use of their employee data.
Van der Veer explains: “When we do an engagement survey, we have over 200,000 free text comments in [multiple] languages. That is a massive wealth of information, but it is super complicated to actually analyze.”
However, with the help of Culture X over the past two years, AB InBev has been able to get helpful insights out of the data to the benefit of its HR team.
AB InBev also acted as a pilot project for Culture X.
In terms of using technology to understand employee sentiment, “Don and Charlie have really cracked the code”.
While the tech may not be flashing on the front-end, AB InBev’s work with Culture X “really allows us to capture the heartbeat of what goes on in an organization”, van der Beer says.
AB InBev seems to have had success in using HR tech from individual vendors, rather than adopting a single all-in-one platform approach.
van der Veer says: “I don’t think there is a great, flexible enough core HR platform on the market yet” for an organization the size of AB InBev.
Core HR is, he adds, is too much of a “monolithic block” that manages the “connection from hire to retire” and often HR leaders would need to give up a lot of control in order to fully embrace significant tech disruption in this area.