Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

The Year of AI for HR

The CHRO of IBM explains how the company started its AI journey by weeding out inefficient and outdated processes, and how it's reaping some quick AI wins.

AI visualization

It’s no secret that artificial intelligence continues to dominate the headlines, and it’s being called the most transformative technology of our lifetime. For CHROs and their teams, ideas of how you might infuse AI are flowing, but questions remain about where true business value can be unlocked, where to go next or even how to get started.

At IBM, we’ve been using AI and automation to power our digital transformation. HR has been “client zero” for IBM’s products and services for years. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and whether you’re new to the technology or you’re a seasoned pro, the highs and lows of our journey may help you on the way to making your ideas a reality.

Why HR Must Invest Now

Nickle J. LaMoreaux

Nickle J. LaMoreaux

First, let’s talk about the three forces impacting companies worldwide and driving change. These broad factors are the primary reasons that HR must invest in AI now.

1. Consumer-grade experiences: delightful experiences that can be enabled and enhanced by technology. We started to see our employees expecting consumer-grade experiences at work, even as far back as when we began investing in AI in 2017. In their personal lives, IBMers were used to receiving customized recommendations and ordering products and services that arrived almost instantaneously. They were demanding personalization and immediacy—simplified mobile experiences embedded into their flow of work. These expectations have only increased since then, and AI is now allowing us to keep up with demand.

2. Cost efficiencies: a significant focus for organizations in 2024. This isn’t just about “doing more with less,” but unlocking new value with technology that wasn’t previously possible with finite resources. And if you’re going to spend a dollar, you want to spend it in a place that’s getting the most valuable return on your investment. For example, the AI solution we created to help both managers and HR business partners with the promotions process, aptly named HiRo, has saved 60,000 hours of productivity for our Consulting managers in just one year. That’s money well spent.

3. Compliance. In a recent study from IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs ranked regulatory factors as a top disruptor to enterprises. (The No. 1 disruptor is technology.) The legal, employee and labor relations landscape is more complex than ever. Worldwide, companies are constantly being asked to react to new or changing legislation at the country, state or local level. It’s a daunting task, but a perfect fit for AI. In the past, we would generally approach pressures about experiences, cost and compliance individually and often try to solve them with separate teams, budgets and processes. Now, in an environment that demands increased performance in all of these areas at once, something has to give. That’s where AI brings tremendous value.

Identify Some Quick AI Victories

The rate of digital transformation is only increasing, and AI’s technological change is unprecedented. The AI you’re experimenting with today is much more advanced than what we started with years ago. With these new tools at your disposal, you have the distinct advantage of beginning your AI work now. But the key is you have to begin. You can’t wait for “the perfect time” or “that perfect project,” because that simply doesn’t exist. Continuing to wait to delve into AI will just put you and your team further behind.

If you want to find some quick AI wins, start by identifying HR use cases where applying AI might work for your business. Look for:

  • High-volume, repetitive tasks.
  • Processes that employees don’t enjoy today that can only improve.
  • Moments that matter for your employees, where accuracy and expediency create a lasting impression.

As you are getting started, remember two important things: Never automate a bad process, and you can’t have AI without IA (information architecture). To successfully experiment with and deploy AI, you must have a solid information architecture, meaning your data must be organized and structured in a way that makes sense. From data cleanup to process documentation, AI can’t happen without IA.

AI at IBM: 5 Lessons Learned

In addition to being incredibly clear about guardrails and what we will and won’t do with AI, what other lessons have we learned along the way?

First: Start small and experiment. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Do a few things well, and build with an intention to scale. Think of it like building blocks that you’re using and experimenting with in different parts of your organization.

Second: Learn as you go, fail fast and be agile. You may have to pivot and try new things depending on your findings.

Third: Lead with the use case, not the technology. Find a pain point where you can make a quick win. It doesn’t have to be big. Employee verification letters are a great starting point.

Fourth: It only works when the data is trusted. Before diving in, make sure you have a technology partner whose vision, goals and purpose align with your own.

Finally: Build advocates out of your employees. HR has great ideas for AI projects. But so do managers and employees—and they are often closer to the work. If you allow them to pitch ideas for what processes to eliminate, simplify or automate next, you’ll build advocates outside of HR.

Eliminate, Simplify, Automate

The mantra of our HR team is “eliminate, simplify, automate”—and in that order. It’s how we avoid automating a bad process (one that’s outdated, unnecessary or overly complex). Instead of automating for automation’s sake, we suggest beginning by eliminating and simplifying. Then, when it’s time to automate, you’re only focused on the most valuable, streamlined processes.

One of the most important words when it comes to AI is trust. Not only should your clients trust your offerings, but your employees should, as well. You must build in guardrails from the beginning about what your organization will and won’t do with AI and how data will be carefully managed. Additionally, creating transparency at the start enables humans to trust the AI to enhance their decision-making.

At IBM, AI will never be a decision-maker. It is there to augment human intelligence, never replace it. That is one of IBM’s Principles for Trust and Transparency, along with “Data and insights belong to their creator” and “AI systems must be transparent and explainable.” We encourage all companies to adopt similar principles.

AI Case Study

As you’re considering your own use cases, here’s an example from our team. We introduced a digital assistant, AskHR, which now answers 94 percent of all HR FAQs and policy questions worldwide, and it enables IBMers to complete most tasks in less than 25 percent of the time it used to take manually.

One of the most popular transactions that AskHR completes is employee verification letters. AskHR can generate a letter and send it to a bank, university or other institution in 90 seconds. This delights IBMers who previously had to wait up to 72 hours for letters from an external vendor.

AskHR also positively impacts our HR Helpdesk teams, who no longer need to answer repetitive questions via phone or email. This frees them up for higher-value work. They are retraining themselves for more complex support cases such as, “Why did my pay change this month?” or “Tell me how to give constructive feedback to a low performer.” This upskilling has resulted in a collective two-level promotion, as we recognize the work being done at our HR Helpdesk is a significantly higher skill level, and it delivers greater value to the business.

As you’re working through your own use cases, ensure you are also looking to the future. Start to plan and prepare for your employees to work side by side with AI. And you will work side by side.

AI takes on the routine, manual tasks, but your employees will be there for what I call the “uniquely human” work. Don’t buy into the hype that AI is going to replace your entire workforce—it’s not. While it is true that some fringe roles may be impacted, that will be an incredibly small percentage. What is true is that many jobs will change because of AI, and we need to prepare not just our HR functions but our workforce for that change.

What’s next: Late last year, our IBM HR team began several GenAI pilots in areas such as career and skills and benefits. These will enable us to generate new ideas, expand offerings with personalized experiences and allow IBMers to interact with the platform in natural conversation in a secure and trusted way.  


Nickle LaMoreaux is the CHRO at IBM, where she leads IBM’s people strategy, skills, employee experience and services, and global HR team supporting more than 250,000 IBMers across 170 countries. She has been with IBM for more than 20 years.