The Evolving Role Of IBM In The HR Marketplace

As we enter 2021 and look at all radical changes in work, technology, and HR, it’s time to reflect on where we are. The world is responding to the Pandemic, technology is advancing at an incredible rate, and we are literally reinventing the workplace in real-time.

As I wrote about in the HR Technology 2021 Report, right now every company is focused on improving the Employee Experience, and they’re doing this with a very broad perspective. This means considering health, safety, productivity, and wellbeing, as well as the HR topics of inclusion, career, pay, and rewards. We will be introducing a new EX Framework early next year and you’ll see how expansive and important the topic has become.

It also means that HR technology and HR organizations have to be fully integrated into the company: Employee Experience touches facilities, legal, IT, finance, as well as HR. So our job as HR leaders has been expanded this year, and we need technology partners that can see the big picture.

And now it’s even more important: in the middle of this change, as I discuss in the HR Technology 2021 Report, HR Tech is merging with WorkTech.

HR Tech to Work Tech

Suddenly we live our lives in video conferencing tools (witness the growth in Microsoft Teams, Salesforce’s acquisition of Slack, a major new release of WebEx, the growth of Workplace by Facebook) and messaging, team management, document management, and knowledge management are hot. In fact, the whole world of HR Tech is evolving into WorkTech, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

For those of us in HR, the traditional “talent management” platforms are being replaced. We have new integrated systems for employee feedback and self-development, smart systems to facilitate internal mobility (the Talent Marketplace segment), AI-based candidate and job matching systems, and amazing tech for learning in the flow of work, safe workplace monitoring, performance and goal management, and more. I feel like the entire tech stack at work is being disrupted, and it’s all focused on Employee Experience first.

Well IBM, one of the most seasoned technology companies in the world, is now heavily focused in this area. I spent the last two years collaborating with IBM on a research study we call HR 3.0, and I’ve come to understand a lot about the company’s offerings. So I wanted to take some time to explain.

IBM Has A Deep History in Talent and HR

It’s important to understand that IBM, as an organization, deeply understands HR. I worked for the company in the 1980s and their talent practices formed the foundation of my career. The founding culture of IBM (going back to Thomas Watson) was based on developing people (hiring, training, developing, supporting) better than any competitor. And this focus has helped the company reinvent itself again and again.

Back in 2008 we invited Ted Hoff, a senior HR leader at IBM, to speak at our first customer conference. Ted showed us how IBM had developed a personalized platform for continuous learning, a system for personalized micro-learning, and how the company built a global talent model that used data to drive development, mentoring, and career guidance for 300,000+ employees. They were a decade ahead of the market.

Since then, under the leadership of CHRO Diane Gherson (now retired) and new CHRO Nickle LaMoureaux, the company has pioneered many of the most innovative talent practices in the world. Not only does IBM use AI (Watson) for amazing things, IBM pioneered many of the “future of work” practices we all dream about.

  • IBM pioneered agile performance management over a decade ago and crowd-sourced the ongoing design,
  • IBM uses AI-based data to identify skills and market demand for employees, making all pay “market-based,”
  • IBM uses AI-based matching, career assessment, and candidate assessment to recommend jobs to candidates and internal staff,
  • IBM has a broad global network of social communication tools and can spot harassment or employee issues anywhere in seconds,
  • IBM developed its own internal social network (Blue Pages) before Facebook even existed and connects employees to projects, opportunities, and learning directly,
  • IBM’s HR team includes dedicated data scientists, chatbot developers, UI designers, and engineers to build world-class solutions.

I worked for IBM in the 1980s and this is a company that “builds what it needs” with no fear of trying something new.

Under Diane’s leadership (and I know Nickle feels the same) the company continuously tries new ideas, pioneers experiments, and quickly iterates on HR solutions – which range from “work at home” to “satellite office” to new practices for pay, rewards, vacation, and just about everything else.

IBM HR Transformatoin

And all this is built around its culture.

During my decade at IBM I was always treated with respect (I was a systems engineer and sales and marketing manager) and became engrained in a culture that focused on people and customers above all else.

Yes, IBM has been through a lot of change (selling off the PC business, exiting the proprietary networking business, transforming the mainframe business, pioneering investment in AI, and now acquiring RedHat to become a leader in hybrid cloud), but despite these changes, the culture of “solving business’s most complex problems” remains. And this would not be possible without a continuous investment in people.

IBM’s History In the HR Marketplace

Led by IBM’s relentless focus to invent, IBM invested in Workday, Saba, Slack, and many advanced HR technologies internally. And every time IBM went out and acquired a new platform, the company built new services, interfaces, and integrations on top. The IBM YourLearning system (which probably has roots in Ted Hoff’s project) is one of the most advanced, predictive learning systems in the world. It grew out of years of design and development designed to help IBMers build new skills, find peers and mentors, and improve their careers in the company.

When cloud HCM took off, IBM’s services organization rapidly built a business around the implementation of Workday, SuccessFactors, and Oracle. Today IBM is one of SAP’s largest implementers and continues to be a leader in Workday and Oracle projects as well. Not happy to just “implement” these systems, the company built vertical solutions, employee-experience add-ons, and an entire platform (The IBM Talent Platform) of AI services that can be added to any solution.

In the 2000s IBM acquired Kenexa ($1.2 Billion), and amassed a set of consultants and IP in employee assessment, skills taxonomies, and recruiting. This helped IBM grow its outsourcing business and eventually resulted in the new IBM Talent Platform, a set of plug and play AI-based technologies that can automate almost any part of HR. 

Originally the company tried to sell these offerings as standalone solutions: now it is all integrated and customers can buy any part of the IBM Talent Platform to address their most urgent needs. 

IBM Talent Platform

Moving From A World of “Buy” to “Integrate”

We are now in a world where all the “systems of work” have to fit together. While vendors focus on each independent area of HR, the problem is ultimately the Employee Experience, so we need a consultant that can help put all the pieces together. 

Suppose you’re a company and you buy Workday, SuccessFactors, or Oracle as your core HCM. You probably want an AI-based recruiting portal, globalized recruitment and onboarding process, a set of career and development tools, and also a real-time mobile app that helps employees schedule their work location, attest to their health and infection, and submit cases and questions on their pay, rewards, and wellbeing benefits. Good luck doing this with one vendor – it’s impossible.

Along comes IBM. As with other systems integrators (Accenture, TCS, Deloitte, PWC, E&Y, and others), IBM understands how all these systems work, and can likely show you industry examples and industry solutions where they’ve built “just what you need” before.

But there’s more under the covers.

Since IBM, at its core, is a software and technology company, the company can build “Intelligent Workflows” on top of these applications, designed to give you the custom experience you need. I remember my years at IBM decades ago when IBM pioneered the ideas of online transaction processing, two-phase commit, and intelligent user design. Well, the company has done this again, and now can build secure, data-driven, AI-powered “workflows” that turn all these off-the-shelf products into a customized, integrated solution.

But wait, you may say. I don’t want a bunch of custom stuff – I want off-the-shelf cloud solutions so I can avoid lots of effort.

Well actually that’s no longer the right strategy – every vendor is tweaking and working on their product roadmap, so you need an employee experience that’s INDEPENDENT of the vendor you choose. Yes of course ServiceNow and the HCM vendors will argue that they do have everything you need – but in reality, your EX is up to you, and IBM can help you build just what you need.

Intelligent Workflows: A Few Examples

Let me give a real-world example.

One of the world’s largest insurance companies hires more than 20,000 people per year. They hire customer service agents, nurses, medical practitioners, analysts, business professionals, and a wide variety of technology people at a rapid rate. Each time I meet them they come up with innovative ideas for sourcing, internal talent mobility, employee performance measurement, and more. And as the US healthcare industry keeps changing, they are relocating service centers on a regular basis.

Some years ago this company hired IBM to help, and IBM built what is now called the “Precision Talent Model” for hiring. This solution, which uses Intelligent Workflows and AI, enables recruiters to immediately see bottlenecks in high volume or high scarcity recruits. It monitors the entire process and sends alerts if an offer letter is late or a hiring manager has fallen behind. With tens of thousands of candidates flowing through the process, Precision Talent has real-time dashboards that let the company monitor the entire process in real-time. And the candidates gain the benefits of an AI-based conversational chatbot, career advice, and excellent job applicant experience.

Since hiring IBM to build this solution, the company has seen a 40% increase in hiring manager satisfaction, 66% improvement in candidate experience, and 30% reduction in time and cost to hire. And in 2020 the volume has been massive.

Could this company have done this alone? Probably not. Behind the scenes, there are applicant tracking systems, candidate marketing systems, intelligent assessment systems, and tools for selection, background checking, and process management. All this is integrated and engineered by IBM using Intelligent Workflows: IBM serves is the architect, general contractor, and service provider for this work.

IBM agile talent acquisition

Let me cite a second example.

As you probably know, there is a massive interest in reskilling, internal mobility, and what we now call “internal talent marketplaces.” I’ve written about the “War of the Skills Clouds” and vendors like Workday, Gloat, Fuel50, Cornerstone, Degreed, EdCast, Eightfold.AI, PhenomPeople, and dozens of others are jumping in. Some of these vendors are LXP vendors moving into talent mobility; others are talent marketplace vendors adding features for coaching and development; and others are LMS or learning vendors moving into career solutions. It’s a confusing and rapidly changing mess.

Along comes IBM. IBM has solved this problem internally. Inside IBM there are systems that infer your skills (IBM goes beyond the resume and uses more than 22 sources to figure this out), assesses your skills and skill depth, and constantly looks at new skills in demand.  IBM then uses digital badges and personalized learning to keep the workforce current.

Through its acquisition of Kenexa, IBM acquired what is now called IBM Talent Frameworks, one of the most complete job-competency models in the market. It lets companies build a career marketplace and AI-driven career management solution from experience, not by starting from scratch. While the company doesn’t promote it as a “product,” it is embedded in career management solutions IBM can build.

IBM Career Coach

Redesigning HR Service Delivery

Finally, let me mention IBM’s enormous experience in HR outsourcing and HR Service Delivery. Today IBM outsources the HR service delivery, recruiting, and ongoing employee care for some of the world’s biggest companies. This business started years ago when one of IBM’s biggest insurance clients wanted to go through a cost reduction. 

In the process of doing this, IBM developed a massive set of workflow rules, chatbots, and self-service systems to help in every aspect of EX service delivery. The company’s Cognitive and Virtual Agents for HR are well refined and ready to go to work for any company. And IBM has productized its internal communications platform (called Social Pulse last I saw it) so you can set up an internal “listening” solution as well.

In many ways IBM has redefined the role of a “systems integrator” to that of a “general architect” that can bring together platforms to deliver an integrated solution. And the timing for this could not be better: in 2021 companies are going to accelerate their plans for the Safe, New Workplace, so we all need to do this now.

IBM Is Here To Stay

Of course, IBM has lots of smart competitors. TCS, Accenture, Deloitte, E&Y, and PwC are also very focused in this area.

But as the WorkTech market continues to expand and the ever-increasing focus on Employee Experience becomes urgent, IBM is in a strong position to thrive. Remember this is a company that survived decades of disruption and invented many of the IT technologies we use today. Their evolution in the world of HR has been impressive, and I believe they will grow in the year ahead.