IBM employees can soon seek career advice from supercomputer Watson

IBM is looking to enhance the HR offering as the company is training Watson to respond to career-related questions


A company that does not use analytics will be wasting its money on different things, and ironically even IBM learnt that through Watson. Photo: Bloomberg
A company that does not use analytics will be wasting its money on different things, and ironically even IBM learnt that through Watson. Photo: Bloomberg

Bengaluru: Watson, International Business Machines Corp.’s question-answering supercomputer, can answer questions after sifting through reams of data, for healthcare providers and educational institutions alike. But soon it will be able to give employees of the tech giant some career advice too.

IBM’s cognitive computing platform, which answers questions posed naturally, has been used by companies for human resource (HR) and talent management solutions and now the company is looking to beef up the HR offering.

“If I want to know about my career progression, typically I would call my manager. But why can’t I talk to Watson about it?” asked Kevin Cavanaugh, vice-president of IBM’s Smarter Workforce unit, in an interview.

This business unit, which is under the umbrella of social business, is involved in developing HR analytical solutions for companies.

So the team is training Watson to respond to career-related questions. “We’ll train Watson to recognize the questions and associate them with the answers we curate for the machine. That way it may come back and say that you have these skills but to get to the next level, you may need to add these other skills. It will also point you to training classes and even suggest mentors,” said Cavanaugh, who has been with the company for over two decades and is working to deploy these conversational agents among IBM employees.

Watson first made its public appearance in 2011 at the TV quiz show Jeopardy, where it won the contest and took home a $1 million prize. Since the win, IBM has been commercialising the range of solutions it can offer. In January 2014, the company launched the IBM Watson unit dedicated to developing and commercialising cloud-delivered cognitive computing technologies.

As part of enhancing its HR offering, the smarter workforce team is also looking to develop a solution that will help recruiters have better conversation with potential employees.

“We are also exploring use cases where potential employees can talk to Watson to know more about job opportunities,” says Cavanaugh. “For instance, Watson may say tell me a bit about yourself and from that information it can recommend suitable job opportunities.”

The Smarter Workforce engineering team in Vishakhapatnam is one of the lead teams working on developing these HR solutions, said Cavanaugh. However, In India, much like elsewhere in the world, HR analytics has not found a lot of takers.

“Analytics in HR for most people even today is about a few charts and graphs that tell them the average time to hire and the distribution of candidates and so forth. That only tells you answers to questions you already know how to ask,” says Cavanaugh. “People are looking at analytics as a transactional thing.”

A company that does not use analytics will be wasting its money on different things, and ironically even IBM learnt that through Watson.

Through trade-off analytics (a Watson service that helps make decisions when balancing multiple objectives), Cavanaugh said the company was able to tailor it’s incentives and benefits better by finding out who was likely to stay in the company, there by saving millions of dollars.

So given the prowess of analytics, can it replace HR managers or recruiters?

Not completely, said Cavanaugh. But he added that it means people in a function won’t have to engage in low levels of discussion and it will call for only well-informed specialists.

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