When discussing innovative tech firms, 187-year-old John Deere might not be the first name that springs to mind. Known better for its iconic green and yellow tractors and trendy hats, most people are surprised to learn that the company is also a pioneer and long-time leader in AI and robotics.

The storied agricultural industry giant currently boasts an impressive array of technological achievements:

While John Deere’s evolution from traditional manufacturer to tech powerhouse has been ongoing for decades, it wasn’t until 2019 that the transformation hit full throttle with the adoption of an Agile operating model.

The initiative’s success largely hinged on reimagining the company’s approach to talent management, along with advancing a fundamental shift in organizational culture. “Our Agile move was about becoming a customer-centric organization and really transforming how the entire company worked,” explains Renae Shannon, Global IT HR business partner at John Deere. 

Below, we share her insights on how John Deere built a tech-forward workforce — and the pivotal role HR professionals play in shaping the workforces of the future.

Success needs a map: Nurturing internal talent through continuous learning and growth

“When we set out on our Agile journey, we found ourselves in a position where we didn’t have the right talent in the right places to help us move forward,” shares Renae. “We knew we had to make big changes if we wanted to remain competitive.” 

To get a better picture of their organization’s skills gaps and talent needs, Renae and her team started by creating personas and skills maps for every role in Agile teams. “Each job has a persona tied to it,” she explains. “And within each persona, there’s a set of key skills.” These personas informed skills development programs, recruiting efforts, and role-specific lists of no-regret skills — valuable competencies that are in high demand and crucial for securing long-term competitiveness. 

Next, came workforce transformation. “We had a lot of business and manager types,” Renae recalls, “But what we really needed was software engineers and full-stack teams. Reskilling and upskilling were very new concepts for us at this point. But investing in our workforce was crucial — not only to secure long-term success — but also as part of John Deere’s larger commitment to our people.” 

Renae and her team partnered with General Assembly to develop learning programs based on the personas, skills maps, and skills forecasts they’d created. “Our first upskilling effort transformed over a hundred employees into software engineers and made them eligible for software engineering positions within our company.”

Lastly, to reinforce the new continuous learning culture, Renae and her team focused on career architecture. “It was really important for us that employees saw growth and development at John Deere,” she explains. 

“We wanted to ensure we retained them and their knowledge. But, in order to do so, we needed to create opportunities and guidelines for growth. So we came up with leveling guides.” These guides help employees and managers understand the criteria for advancement and provide direction in areas like skills development and performance expectations.

Renae shares that, at John Deere, continuous learning is non-negotiable for two reasons. “First, technology is changing fast and we need to remain relevant and ensure our products integrate the best and latest technology,” she states. At the same time, she adds, it’s a talent attraction and retention play. “Investing in our talent is crucial — people don’t want to join companies that won’t invest in them. They went to school or went through a reskilling program because they’re passionate about technology. And it’s up to us to mirror that passion and help them continue to grow in it.”

Commitment before change: Securing long-term success for nontraditional talent

John Deere’s Agile shift coincided with the pandemic’s volatile job market and the intense competition for talent it spurred. “For years, we only hired computer science professionals with four-year degrees,” recalls Renae. “But, as we faced an increasingly tight labor market and sought to meet more ambitious diversity goals, we decided to give more nontraditional candidates a chance.”

In addition to partnering with General Assembly to hire bootcamp graduates, John Deere launched an apprenticeship program and invested in community reskilling programs. The apprenticeship program engages high school students in part-time work with the goal of making them eligible for internships and other career development opportunities in the future. The community reskilling program provides 12-month apprenticeships for underserved youth in the Chicago area with the aim of upgrading into full-time positions at the company. 

When discussing the challenges of integrating and managing nontraditional talent, Renae admits the process takes considerable time, effort, and commitment. “It took years to get to where we are today,” she states. “We had to do a lot of benchmarking and collect and analyze a lot of data to leverage what started as a pilot program into a long-term strategy.” 

Storytelling, she adds, was crucial for drumming up internal support: “We had to find the right success stories, not only to support the initiative, but to help us find the right way to nurture these individuals.” 

One area she emphasizes that can make or break nontraditional talent’s success is leadership. “When you change your recruitment criteria from a four-year degree to a 12-week bootcamp, you have to keep in mind that you’re signing up yourself for a lot more upskilling and mentoring,” states Renae. “And you have to make sure your managers are ready to deliver on all that coaching.”

Numbers don’t lie: Taking a data-centric approach to talent management 

“As a team, our goal is to make sure we get the right talent,” states Renae. “That means understanding our current workforce and their capabilities and how to leverage them to get us where we want to be as an organization.” 

Early in their transformation journey Renae and her team created an engineering advocacy group to help them find the best ways to grow and develop technical talent and how to recruit the right people. To ensure more data-driven decision-making in talent development and recruitment, the team uses internal and external skills assessments:

In addition to internal benchmarking, Renae and her team work with third parties that provide them with data, market analyses, and forecasts to ensure talent strategies remain aligned with the company’s long-term goals. 

Another element the team considers when forecasting talent development needs is product. “You need to understand the products you have today and how they’ll evolve over time,” explains Renae. The company’s products combine state-of-the-art technology with legacy machinery, all of which will inevitably undergo evolution or face obsolescence in the future. “We have to look at the skill sets of the people working on all those products and plan how we’re going to develop them in a way that doesn’t impact their livelihoods and provides them with a path forward in their careers.”

Evolution sharpens your edge: A data and culture-driven roadmap to workforce transformation

Apart from data and hard metrics, Renae credits John Deere’s organization-wide emphasis on digital mastery as a key factor in ensuring the company’s long-term competitiveness in a rapidly evolving market. This entails empowering both technical and non-technical talent to understand and adapt to emerging digital technologies and leverage them to innovate and work more efficiently. 

She concludes, “Our employees now have a clear understanding of our goals and what they need to focus on to help us move forward.”

Lastly, Renae offers three additional insights for organizations embarking on or navigating workforce transformation:

  1. It’s a long journey and it requires time, patience, and good communication.
  2. High-quality data and benchmarking are crucial for success.
  3. Incremental piloting makes everything easier to manage and scale.

Want to view the complete fireside chat? Watch the recording here.

Looking to build a future-proof workforce? Check out our portfolio of AI training solutions. Or get in touch with our team to learn more about all the tech training and talent solutions we can provide to help your business.