Q&A with IBM: The Future of AI in HR and Closing Emerging Skills Gaps

By Dave Zielinski October 24, 2019
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​IBM is a pioneer in applying artificial intelligence to HR. Its Watson line of products uses AI in recruiting, career coaching, personalized learning, analytics and more. IBM, commonly known as Big Blue, has also used AI and automation to transform its own HR function.

SHRM Online sat down with Amy Wright, managing partner of IBM's talent and transformation group, at the recent HR Technology Conference & Exposition to talk about the company's future strategy for AI in HR, recent research it conducted on closing employee skill gaps and Wright's role in helping transform IBM's own HR group.

SHRM Online: IBM's Institute for Business Value recently conducted a worldwide study of more than 5,000 executives on closing employee skill gaps. What are the most relevant findings for HR and talent leaders?

Wright: One is that 41 percent of CEOs surveyed felt they didn't have the right talent in place to achieve their business objectives. Another is the change from past surveys in terms of where respondents believe their biggest skill gaps lie. Previously, executives ranked technical skills, including STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] or computer and software skills, as areas where they had their biggest gaps. But in our latest study, the top gaps were in behavioral skills, including willingness to be flexible and adaptable to change, time management skills and an ability to prioritize.

SHRM Online: What is the next frontier for IBM Watson in terms of AI applications within HR? What is your area of focus now and going forward to help address HR's biggest challenges?

Wright: Our belief is that AI can eventually be embedded in every aspect of the employee life cycle, and those applications should be connected in end-to-end fashion. When you link recruiting to career coaching to personalized learning and more—and help employees make the shift to partnering with intelligent machines to make decisions along the way—it creates high value.

Take career development as just one example. When you can use AI to infer someone's skills based on their current role and gather data on things like what someone is blogging about or who they associate with in the organization, knowing those things enables AI to make suggestions about the next best role for them in the company, and the specific skills or experiences they may need to develop to get there.

SHRM Online: Many HR and talent leaders still have a healthy skepticism about the use of AI and are concerned it may create adverse impact or bias in hiring and promotion decisions. What is IBM's position on that?

Wright: It's a big issue for HR practitioners, and I don't think our belief system is much different from other providers'. You teach technologies to be biased. They don't learn to be biased on their own, because AI learns based on prior data and experiences. 

Our belief is it's our responsibility to make sure bias is addressed and to teach AI tools to do things the right way. At the end of the day, AI should be feeding your organization quality information to support decision-making, but you are at larger risk when AI alone is making decisions for you.

SHRM Online: Prior to your current role, you were vice president of human resources for global business services at IBM, where you helped to lead a transformation of the HR unit. Tell me about the rationale for that change and AI's role in it.

Wright: We've been helping clients transform their businesses using AI for many years, but one of the first places we started was our own HR function. We believed all of our people needed to learn AI on some level so they could help design and implement automation and change processes without having to rely solely on IT to do it for us. But our transformation wasn't just about giving HR staff new skills, but also changing the way we were structured and how we worked across the enterprise.

We started by creating a dedicated data analytics function within HR, even before we began introducing AI. The objective of that function was to work itself out of a job—which it eventually did—by making sure everyone in HR developed skills around how to gather and interpret data. As one example, we discovered we had an employee attrition issue in a particular country. By applying AI and analytics, we were able to predict with high accuracy which key employees were going to leave their jobs in that country in the next six months and why.

We created in HR a predictive model of propensity to leave, but we didn't stop there. We took the next step by making AI-driven recommendations to managers about what to do to keep employees who were showing indicators of leaving.

We also changed how our functional groups look in HR. For example, we now have a dedicated group in IBM responsible for onboarding that exists outside of HR—the team consists of someone from security, someone from IT, someone from HR, someone from line management and so on—to make the process more efficient and effective.

SHRM Online: The use of internal job marketplaces seems to be on the rise to keep top employees and create new avenues for career development. Talk about the role that IBM's My Career Advisor, "Myca," can play in that.

Wright: One key part is its matching technology, which takes what is known about your employees and presents internal opportunities or openings that are a good fit for them. Employees can write, "Hey, Myca, I'm interested in a new role" to find out what might be applicable for their skills or interesting to them. The matching technology identifies roles that are aligned with your skills, as well as others where you may need additional skills to qualify for the job. It also can show how other people with your similar background or skill set successfully moved from your role to another role in the company.

The challenge with this technology is managers often don't want to lose their best people to other parts of the organization. But we actually found use of the virtual career coach [Myca] to be a positive influence on managers when we implemented the system at IBM.

One reason was they now knew this marketplace was out there, and their people had more options to move, so they took more steps to manage them effectively. Also, because of our AI tools, managers had more information on the skills their employees possessed that were considered either marketable or declining. Managers understood that if their people had declining skills, they would need to help them develop growth skills or else they might leave the company or look for other roles inside of IBM. So ultimately, we feel it helped make many managers better developers and coaches of people.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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