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IBM Announces Most Powerful AI Effort Yet: The Birth of Smart HR

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HR is a mess.

With the advent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) back in the 1970s, HR went from being employee advocate with a focus on assuring that employees were well trained and well treated (designed to be a less violent and more efficient alternative to unions, which had triggered events like the Borax strike) to a compliance organization focused on making sure people, mostly low-level employees, complied with policy.

This has been a problem for decades. But until recently, unemployment was relatively high, which artificially held down employee churn (because there was a good chance that if you quit it would take months or years to find a new job). Recently we’ve moved to a situation where we are nearly at full employment, giving employees far more choice. Employee churn is now a bigger problem, and employees are gaining power. The books “Lab Rats” by Dan Lyons and “Brotopia” by Emily Chang suggest HR needs to change back into being a force for good and stop being a force often used by some truly evil people.

I have a number of degrees, including one in manpower management, and it is my view that much of the abuse and job dissatisfaction that exists is because people hold jobs for which they are ill suited. Managers, in particular, are often put in departments where they lack an understanding of what the department actually does. And I’ve known several CEOs who failed because they simply had the wrong skillset.

This is why I think IBM’s move to apply Watson to HR is so important. If we could better match people's skills with jobs they would enjoy, the insecurity that often results in abuse would largely be eliminated, as would the stress. People would have better lives. It would be a tide that would raise all boats.

The Job Mess

If you think about how you got to the job you have, the story probably sounds a great deal like an accident. Perhaps you knew someone that you admired and that caused you to make a choice. Or a relative (like your father or mother) did the job and you followed them. Or a counselor who was undereducated and underfunded with poor tools pointed you in the direction you ended up going.

Even if you got it right, we change a lot decade over decade. Our relationships change, and even the market changes around us, suggesting we not only are likely in a suboptimal job, we should be working our collective butts off to increase our skill set and thus be better able to survive the wave of job changes that regularly disrupts every market.

More important, wouldn’t it be great if, rather than being locked into a dead-end career and being constantly worried that HR would flag you for some silly infraction, you were in a situation where HR had your back? And by “had your back” I mean they were able to see automatically if you were in distress or might be at risk due to trends that they could see.

They be able to suggest how you could mitigate those risks by pointing you to new jobs, rewarding you for your breadth of training and even automatically flagging if you were being abused, were overworked and at risk of burn out, or had some other issue that could eventually adversely impact your performance or quality of life — before those events disrupted your life.

IBM Talent and Transformation

IBM announced the application of Watson AI to this problem and the transformation of HR from a largely hated compliance organization into the kind of organization most of the HR folks I know would rather work for. An HR that actually helps people, that works to prevent abuse by assuring employees have the right skill sets and assures those skill sets evolve with the needs of the firm, resulting in happier, focused employees and a strategic HR department.

With this service, employees are encouraged to develop diverse skills. (This is ironic for me because when I worked at IBM my mentor told me I’d never be successful if I didn’t focus, but by not focusing, I’ve had far more success than most of my peers. Flexibility is actually a far more assured career path — or it was for me anyway). Skills are like badges in the Boy Scouts or achievements in the military; they make you more valuable, more likely to get a raise, and more likely to be promoted. And a manager with a broader skill set that better understands what his or her employees actually do will generally be a better mentor and certainly a far better manager. In addition, these managers are less likely to feel threatened by an employee who knows more than they do.

IBM couples this with on-demand, Netflix-like training which enables people to learn at their own speed, analytics that point employees in directions where they have the greatest affinity, and predictive analytics that allows HR to respond in a timely manner to attrition risks.

What IBM offers is a series of services that do all of this — and can even do more, depending on the needs of the company. Those services range from better talent acquisition and job matching to better employee management to career coaching that makes employees both happier and more effective. There is even a scoring method, similar to the net promoter score (NPS), for employee management so that you can better identify critical employee loyalty problems (like whether the employee is being abused) before the begin to act out or leave.

Making the World a Better Place

We live in an increasingly angry and hostile world. IBM is directly offsetting that with an impressive set of offerings designed to reduce employee stress, improve employee satisfaction, reduce the need for terminations and layoffs, and create ever more productive and capable employees. The result should be better managers, far lower tendencies for abuse, better analytics from which HR can make meaningful improvements, and vastly improved employee loyalty.

This kind of tool could be used to create more successful schools, more effective military units and even potentially happier marriages with fewer divorces, were it applied to those problems. This is at its core an effort to make the world a better place one company at a time.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to see anyone (but given my history, especially IBM) do this.

The final irony is that when IBM took over ROLM Systems, where I then worked, it killed the reason I’d joined ROLM: the Great Place to Work department. With this offering, it appears to have created something better.

Nicely done!

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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