Helping Organizations to Change Faster



Hi everyone, I'm Joe Cahill, I'm the Chief Customer Officer for the Project Management Institute. PMI is the professional society for project professionals and changemakers. 

Today's podcast focuses on one entrepreneurial leader who is committed to improving large organizational change through the integration of technology, data, and a concern for the human element. Dr. Nabeel Ahmad is a Columbia University professor and a software entrepreneur who will discuss the disruptive effects of change, automation, and data on talent development. Listen to this story and learn how he is improving organizations and managing change for the future of work.


Hello everyone and welcome to PMI Center Stage with today's guest, Dr. Nabeel Ahmad. I’m Ed Hoffman filling in for Joe Cahill. It's good to welcome Dr. Ahmad, who is a co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of, a software platform that helps organizations change better and faster. 

Nabeel Ahmad is also a professor at Columbia University's Human Capital Management Program, where he teaches courses on organizational strategy and learning, and the digital workplace. Nabeel has his doctorate in learning technologies and works at the intersection of business, technology, and learning. 

Nabeel, welcome to PMI Center Stage.


Ed, thank you for having me and I am excited to be sharing the Center Stage with you on this podcast.


So Nabeel, we started knowing each other with a discussion. One of the things that impresses me is you have a deep technical background, having built numerous tech-enabled products in the past, usually in support of the human capital management space. What do we need to know about the world of technology and automation for strategic initiatives for organizations?


Yeah, sure. Great for kicking that question off, Ed, I appreciate it. It reminds me of a quote I saw online somewhere, and I forget who to attribute it to, but it essentially said, your company may not be in the software business, but eventually a software company will be in your business. 

And really what that means is that it's important to understand that technology is around, and that you can apply technology to things to help solve problems. Now, the one caveat I would say is that using technology for technology's sake, because we think it's cool or it's something that is going to be coming, is sort of missing the… defeating the purpose.

So when we see it applied to the human capital management space, as you asked, there's really lots of capabilities and opportunities to apply novel ways of thinking and using technology really to support the decision process that's happening. And so I look forward to unpacking that more throughout this podcast.


Obviously it's been the case that society has been using tools and technologies for a long time, but it feels different currently. I wonder if you can…. One of the things, when we talk, you talk about the work you do for different organizations, how you use data and digital to improve how change happens. We'll get into that. But how is today different regarding the use of technology and tools than it's ever been in the past? Is it about the capabilities, the sophistication, the integration with people? What do you see as that?


Sure. I see an opportunity and a challenge. One, I'd say the challenge is that we know that technology is everywhere. So oftentimes in organizations, they have a challenge of really figuring out, should they be using what we call point solutions - some sort of technology that will solve a single issue that they have? Or are they looking more for an integrated type solution that may be a jack of all trades but master of none? 

And then, what does that ecosystem look like from an organizational perspective, as they start to adopt the technology? I think that's the challenge. 

The opportunity that comes, both with that and alongside it is, Ed, as you alluded to, really on the data side is that, this data, and really in the human capital space where we've seen things really start to exponentially increase, is the amount of data that is available related to the people in the organization. Not just performance, but all different types of, let's call them non-financial metrics, that if put together and synthesized and analyzed in a novel and interesting way, can actually provide organizational value. 

Not just for moving the top line or the bottom line for performance of the business, but also performance of the people. So I would say, comparing really today versus yesterday, in the sense of where technology has shifted, that's where we we've really seen big shifts related to the human capital space with technology.


I like the term you just used, performance of the people. So, what you're doing obviously is using technology and software to help improve things, to augment human performance. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that - if I'm working, leading an organization, how would I look to use you and your capabilities in terms of improving the performance for people?


Sure. One example I can think of off the top of my head, it's not necessarily something I do specifically, but oftentimes people talk about things that are traditionally or typically looked at as being very people heavy, and more... we don't want a machine to do this type of thing. 

Think of coaching, not necessarily executive coaching, but performance coaching or human coaching. If you take one specific example, let's say communication coaching, just like we're communicating now. 

For instance, there is technology, an AI-based app that you can use on your phone that will help you practice to be a better public speaker. Essentially what it does is - and there's many different tools like this, this is just one example - is it will pick up some of what we call your vocalized pauses. I have probably done a few already, the uhms, the ahs, the you knows. And then it'll analyze your tone, and it'll also look at the frequency as to how many times you repeat specific words and whatever else. Then it'll help you to work to become better regarding that.

So that's one specific example where you can use software to really automate something on the human side, more as an individual. Now, a lot more of what I do is really at the organizational space to say, okay, if we're looking at organizations who are embarking on, let's say, a big transformation, some type of Future of Work initiative, or reskilling or upskilling, or an HR transformation. 

Then, really, those leaders have a strategy that's in place, and oftentimes where the gap is, is how do they move the people in the organization, and figure out where they should invest their time and money to help drive that change forward. That's where I can see opportunities, especially related to the role that I'm in these days, around how really you can use that software to automate that digital planning.


That makes sense. It sounds like what you're saying, this is really the future of performance, of how people work in organizations, is that these technologies are able to make this better through learning, through development, and through assistance.


Exactly. And the one thing I'd add on top of that, Ed, the other big thing that we've seen is really what we would call mass personalization. You see this a lot of times when organizations will say, we want our L&D, our LMS learning management system, to look like Amazon or Netflix. 

And what they really mean by that is, when you log on to one of these… you log on to Amazon, it'll smartly recommend things based off of your browsing history, your past order history, and a variety of other factors. Similar to Netflix where it recommends things that we may think you like this, because of these reasons. 

So oftentimes that's really what we're seeing creep into the corporate space, not just in the L&D, the learning and development side, but really all over, is that it's not just technology for technology's sake. It's really mass personalization. 
So me, the individual, Nabeel, and you Ed, we will get a different experience, but it's based on the same type of parameters, but the outputs that we receive because you're an expert on the knowledge management space, I’m in a different space but related, in change management. So the types of things that we'll get will be similar to the system, but different outputs that will then help drive us forward. 

That's really where we see the big opportunities for technology, especially in the human capital space going forward. 


One of the questions I know that leaders often deal with an organization is, how do you demonstrate the value of data and digital and tie it to organizational strategy? Everyone's talking about, we need digital, but often it is not a connection to a what's the value. 

How do you sell that or communicate that to an organization that says, hey, Nabeel, we want to get smarter on digital and data, but they haven't thought about what's the value. Is there is a way you answer that, connecting that value proposition?


Sure. Thanks for teeing that up. One of the big things, the challenges that I see in working with leaders in organizations is that, first, they're really good at identifying what their strategy is and what their objectives are. Any leader who I've talked to, it's like on the back of their hand. They know it by heart. 

Then the next question I follow up with is, well how do you know which parts are working and which aren't and why? And that's where it starts to become a little bit more silent, and they’re like oh, well, I don't know. Right? 

So the question then becomes, which I think is really the heart of your question is, what are some novel and interesting and smart ways that we can tie that and break down their strategy or their organizational objectives, to give them something a little bit more concrete to act on. And the reality is that there's a variety of ways to do that but really when we tie it to data, really the first step that we see is, how do we break down their plan and digitize it that allows it to be chunked up into smaller areas that enable a software platform or something else to be tracked at a level where real activity and real behavior change can occur. 

So that's really what I would call step one, is say, great, you have a strategy, and typically that strategy is in a PowerPoint deck or in an Excel sheet, it's very static. And so how do we make that a little bit more dynamic and not just for technology's sake, but imagine something like COVID again happens or something that comes out of the blue that, for any organization, it's definitely going to impact their strategy going forward. It may not change it completely, but they have to account for it.

And again in the human capital space, I mean there's not a day that goes by when I check LinkedIn, I try to check it once a day or so, and I look at the sidebar that has all the news articles, and out of the top five, there's at least three every day that are talking about returning to work or not returning to work. It’s something people related to the workplace. 

So point being is that for organizations to be able to dynamically adjust their strategy, that's a big gap that they currently have right now. And so, back to your question on where the data comes in, is that the foundational pieces - how can you morph your strategy or your objectives to be a little bit more dynamic, to put yourself in a position to be able to start to capture data that then you can act on. And that's where I see there's definitely a great opportunity going forward.


I think what you're saying is, you want to work with the organization, there's clarity. There's a clarity of the goals, the strategy, objective. There's a sense of what are the real outcomes that you're looking to achieve over a time period, and that all of this adaptability is dynamic. And so the value comes from connecting, where we want to go to where we're actually going. And that's how you determine that value. 

Part of what we've been talking about… I think I know you well enough, of all the things you do, I think what gets the strongest reaction is change. That the importance of helping people, teams and organizations deal with change. I wonder if you can talk to, what are the struggles that you see in organizations around change today? 


Thanks for asking that, Ed. This is really the topic of my work these days is that. And maybe to preface it real quick, how I got here - and you alluded to this a bit - is that I was working in a variety of large enterprise organizations. Doing internal, external consulting as well on the side. I was sort of building my own tech products just to essentially scratch an itch because that's what I like to do. 

And then over time I said, you know what, I'm starting to realize a pattern here, where organizations and leaders are really good at understanding that change needs to happen, and essentially identifying what that strategy is where the derailer is, as you asked, and where the breakdown happens, is really the handoff, let's call it, from the organization leadership to the managers and employees, so really on the execution of that. 

And time and again, I mean you can look throughout the past 30-40 years, the same thing happens over and over. Sort of first couple of steps of “Oh COVID happened, we need to do something.” Every company got that. Here's what we need to do. Everyone mostly got that. And then, now, do it, and here's how to do it - those two is where the breakdown happened.

So to me that's really the biggest derailer and the reason why, so that's the what, in my opinion, the reason why that happens is because, in addition to that to that handoff, but really it's, in a one-word summary, I would say it's empathy. And what I mean by that is that there's a lack of understanding at the leadership and organizational level of employee sentiment. How do people feel about this change, and what can they do to perhaps help us drive that forward, or what ideas may they have that we may not have thought about?

And so it's like, let me give you the playbook, leader to manager and employees, now go do it. And then when it doesn't happen, they wonder why people aren't doing it. And so to me that's really the number one derailer is a lack of empathy and really understanding not only what they should be doing, but how and why they can enable behavior change in their employees. 

And really that's how I started out with what I'm doing now with It's focused on that handoff, to say what are those activities that someone should be doing and how can we map that back to the organizational strategy, to where leaders can really understand who is going to help me drive my strategy forward. How can I track it down to a very specific level of the activity, so when I report back to the board or the CEO, that I have something tangible, which we started out talking about the data side, that I have in my hand and I can show the board or the C-suite. 

Here are the activities that this employee population is doing to help drive our business strategy forward, and here's the behavior that's changing as a result. So that's really a more verbose answer around what I see is the biggest derailer, which again, in summary is really the empathy side and lack of understanding employee sentiment.


I like that. It makes me think a lot. What tip, then, do you have concretely for how to improve their change? How do you use software to help them get to the to the destinations that they’re going to? 

When I worked at NASA, if you're trying to get a team to get a better sense of going to the moon… How do you use data, how do you use empathy, how do you use your approaches to help organizations get to their destination?


The number one issue with organizational change is it takes too long, so it's speed. And, again, think of a COVID. If there's an organization, let's say, what are we, 18-20 months later, after COVID who's just now trying to figure out what to do, then they're probably already out of business. So that's just the latest example.

The number two issue is, even if they do change in a faster time period, there's a lack of employee buy in. So, instead of moving the whole organization forward towards the objectives, they typically will move like 5% of them, which isn't significant enough to see long-lasting change. So really, those are the two big areas.

The reason why I started with that, is because that's what we focus on with our software is really how do we help organizations, a) speed of change, where it typically takes a couple of years or in even faster-moving scenarios, six to nine months. How do we get that for from that long period to three to six months? 

That's one, and number two is how do we get more than 5% of the employee population bought in and get them active and willing participants to drive that change forward. So now you have people who want to jump on the train and get involved. How can we prioritize that area to get a small win that will then start rolling into bigger wins there? So really that's kind of the second big area is that analysis.

And then the last one is to say, okay, what are the activities to help drive that change forward? So let's say they use some project management tool, and they're tracking the tasks that they're doing related to driving that theme seven forward, as an example. 

And so what, what we're able to do is integrate with all that software, whether it's task management or communications – think like an MS Teams or a Slack or whatever else - as well as the project management and learning and development platforms, to then give the leaders an overall dashboard when they report back to their stakeholders to say, here is how we are tracking and driving this change forward.

So really those are kind of the three big areas where we see great opportunity and great interest really, where organizations are saying, wow, I can really start to see how which areas of my strategy aren't working and why, where I should really invest my dollars going forward, and here are the metrics that I can show to my stakeholders on how we're driving that forward. And, oh, by the way here's a group of people that I didn't know about who are helping me drive it forward. 


I want to get into a final couple of questions about the future of work and advice you give to people, but I guess one of the things as I'm listening to you, how do you describe yourself to your family? Are you a human capital management leader? Are you a technologist, a data analyst? How do you describe yourself when someone says, hey, what do you do, Nabeel?


When I get asked that question, oftentimes I will answer with something around, really what I do now is we help organizations change faster. It doesn't get into the technology because that's a little bit more the tactical side. But really the simplest way that I explain it now is, what I do is I help organizations change faster.

Then it starts a conversation around well, what does that look like or how? And then we can start to uncover some of those areas because, as you mentioned, Ed, is that with my background kind of combining multiple areas to business to technology and kind of the education learning side, is that it's always interweaved together. 

Depending on where the conversation goes, there's always opportunities to go deeper in one of those areas over others. So, I found that to be a simple way to be able to answer the question as well as take it in multiple routes.


It was a serious question because I realized, you are a product of really what I guess we call the gig age, where people are doing so many different capabilities, so many different things. It's not like the past where an engineer is an engineer and accountant is an accountant. It's now a little bit of everything and so I liked the fact that you define yourself from the standpoint of the outcomes, helping organizations change, and that to me makes total sense. 

When you're, you teach students, you work with leaders, what's the most important advice that you give to students, and to leaders in relation to preparing for a long and successful career in the future workplace? What do you tell them when they say, hey, you know, Dr. Ahmad, what do I need to do to be successful for the future?


I alluded to this a bit earlier. I would say the one area that I try to help them focus on is, more in the academic world, they call it multiple perspectives, but it's really about getting out of your comfort zone. If you're really looking to develop skills, you're almost always better off developing it in a complimentary area, than what your domain-level knowledge is. That to me is the big area where, oftentimes students are thinking, okay, you know, If I take this fourth graphic design class, then I'll really get there, then they'll really understand me. No, the first three, the first one or two were good enough. And so why don't we take a business communications class, so whenever you for example are talking with a leader that you can translate your technical jargon into something that works well with them. 

Quick story, which kind of gets back to how I got into this area of doing what I do, is back in - and I'll be aging myself here - is back with college, I was doing tech support over the phone for Gateway Computers. You may remember Gateway was the computer that had the cow box, you know, they had the black and white spots. 

I was tasked on the technical support team. And the reason why I mention this is that, early on when I was in training, it was clear to me that most of the people in that training class knew way more than me about computers. I mean, they were building their own computers and all these crazy things. I was like, okay, you know, I understand to a certain extent.

But when we got on the phone, and having to diagnose and troubleshoot these issues, what I found out is that the people who knew the most, had that most domain knowledge, they were struggling a lot and they were getting temper flare ups and things like that because they weren't able to communicate their knowledge to a novice or to someone who didn't know technology, which is why they were calling tech support, to help diagnose and fix their problem. 

So fortunately I learned early on in life, in my sort of high school/college years, that being able to balance out, I don't need to know everything about what's inside of a computer, I know the basics, but being able to communicate with someone and combine that with the technical knowledge will help me be able to do my job better and will give me a more well-rounded skill set.


One of the things that you mentioned, is the use of data to help measure what, to me, is more and more important - the intangibles of organizations. Intangibles being things like learning, engagement, culture, right, leadership - all the things that are more and more important today, that we have problems with because we don't know how to easily measure them. So I wanted to point that out because I thought that was really, to me, an exciting point that you had in there within the larger context of work. 

So let me leave you with the final thoughts. What does the future of work look like - projectized, the use of technology, engaging people. What do you see as the future 5-10 years and beyond?


If I had to say was one thing I think the most important thing for people to really develop, and this is going to sound odd, is the ability to think. I remember when I completed my doctoral degree, they said, people asked me, Nabeel, what do you learn? And I said, you know what, I learned how to think. Which kind of assumes that you didn't know how to do that before, which is the ironic part. 

But really it's about… because we know that the skills are always going to change over the coming years and it's just exponentially going to change faster and faster. I used to do programming a lot, computer programming. I stopped about five or six years ago. I was like, you know what, I've learned enough computer programming languages and it's sort of hard to keep up. But I understood how to think through the different concepts of it, and that is something that helps me, so if and when I decide to sort of pick up and start coding again then it'll help me there. 

And regardless of whether it's technical knowledge or anything else around data, being able to think in different ways, and apply, as we talked about, multiple perspectives and see things from other people's point of view, and use that to inform the decisions that you make or the systems that you design, will get you a lot further, in my opinion, than anything else. 

And so that really to me is the foundational core sweet spot because, again, the tools and the platforms are always going to cycle in and out. There's always going to be something a little bit different, but the ability to figure out ways to connect those and extract value, that's something that machines can't do or can't do very well and I don't expect them to do going forward very well. That's where really the value of the human comes in. 

So that's what I would leave with is the ability to think is always going to be there, and if we can think about things in different ways, and meet people, or be exposed to experiences that challenge our thinking, and help us to learn from that, even if we may not agree, then we will be in an infinitely better spot than we are today to help drive that growth going forward.


Nabeel, thank you so much. You've touched on many things we could… I feel like we've just had a first section, we can keep going. But I think one of the things that you say, obviously, is the ability to think in a time of just immense change. It's not the same old. So how do we prepare for that? 

You're someone who helps organizations change. You use data, digital technology, to allow us to collectively be smarter and do things faster. And through that you help people get out of their comfort zones and be more empowered to grow and to develop. So that's the summary I got out of our conversation and thank you so much for taking time with us.


Thank you for the time, Ed, and I appreciate again sharing the Center Stage with you.


This is Joe Cahill again to wrap up this Center Stage podcast. Dr. Nabeel Ahmad emphasized several points that I found relevant and interesting for the challenges of modern project work. 

First, the only constant is a continuous and increasing demand to face large change. We are experiencing massive amounts of change in all parts of our lives, and a vital capability is learning to handle change effectively for ourselves and our people. 
Second, one of the great advantages we can use in leading organizational change is creating a systems approach to change that leverages data and technology to support and augment people. 

Third, finding the expertise, and what Dr. Ahmad calls the hidden talent within our organizations, is one of the most productive ways to use data and software platforms. 

I appreciate your being a PMI Center Stage podcast listener, and hope that you enjoyed our leadership discussion with Dr. Nabeel Ahmad. Please continue exploring the future of work with us and Center Stage podcast. Thank you.