IBM Report Lays Out a Case for Cognitive HCM Technology

Two-thirds of chief executives surveyed by IBM say cognitive computing will “drive significant value” in Human Resources. On the surface, that implies they’re more bullish on the technology than HR leaders. The company’s report says only 50 percent of those believe cognitive systems could potentially “transform key dimensions” of their departments.

The reportIBM Cognitive Computing HCM Study, by IBM’s Institute for Business Value and Smarter Workforce Institute, says cognitive technology will touch nearly every aspect of Human Capital Management, with the most immediate potential seen in talent acquisition and onboarding, talent development and HR operations. In large part, the demand for cognitive solutions is being driven by the need to provide employees with more effective tools for dealing with changing work environments.

TechTarget defines cognitive computing as “the simulation of human thought processes in a computerized model. Cognitive computing involves self-learning systems that use data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing to mimic the way the human brain works. The goal of cognitive computing is to create automated IT systems that are capable of solving problems without requiring human assistance.” And IBM has a lot riding on it. In 2014, it invested more than $1 billion to a new Watson Group that focuses on developing and commercializing the technology.

While many executives understand how cognitive systems can assist HR, “most are uncertain [about] how and where to proceed,” the report says. Their challenge is complicated by new technical products that provide end users with great experiences in their personal lives and increase pressure on employers to offer tools on the same level. Increasing mobility, easier access to information, flexible schedules and work environments, as well as the continually blurring lines between work and personal lives are, setting expectations higher among all of HR’s constituencies.

To meet these challenges, HR teams must anticipate change and respond to demands more quickly. Already, technology plays a significant role in helping HR keep up, and IBM believes cognitive systems provide a logical foundation for next-generation HCM tools. Their ability to learn, understand natural language and evaluate numerous chunks of information in context can inform decision-making and help boost engagement. From a business point of view, “cognitive solutions can build on existing HR technology investments to enhance the employee experience, help reduce operational costs and enable the discovery of new workforce insights,” the report says.

Corporate Priorities and User Acceptance

While 66 percent of CEOs see how cognitive computing can drive value for HR, only 40 percent expect their HR departments to adopt such systems over the next three years. That strikes us as something of a disconnect, but it’s not clear whether the issue is a reluctance to invest in HCM technology, time being eaten up as organizations consider their options or simply a reflection of priorities.

That said, IBM emphasizes that new technologies often fail because users are unable or unwilling to embrace them. “Given the potential transformative quality of cognitive computing, it’s important to assess the willingness of employees to interact with cognitive solutions in their daily work activities.” It’s a good point.

A key to user acceptance is the willingness of workers to take HR advice from machines instead of people. To get a sense of how that might play out, IBM more than 8,600 employees to gauge their responses to a series of HR scenarios involving a cognitive-technology solution, such as a chatbot, or a more traditional type of interaction, such as emailing with a manager. The majority of employees said their decisions would remain much the same whether it came from a traditional source of cognitive tool.

IBM's HCM Survey Scenarios
IBM’s survey scenarios.

However, when asked if they would use the same sources for similar advice in the future, 71 percent said “yes” when it came to traditional sources while 62 percent would return to cognitive source. IBM’s conclusion: “a short learning curve” will be needed before employees make full use of cognitive systems.

The ‘Sweet Spot’

Perhaps the most important finding in the report is the indication of a clear “sweet spot” where cognitive solutions will work best. This includes where:

  • Decisions require a wide variety of information from different sources.
  • Large volumes of requests are made, and must be interpreted and addressed.
  • Much unstructured data is involved, such as text, images or auditory cues.
  • Users expect the system’s output to be personalized.

Thus the near-term potential of cognitive technology in talent acquisition and onboarding, talent development and HR operations. The reasoning, in the report’s words:

  • Talent acquisition and onboarding: Cognitive solutions can tap into multiple data sources and reveal new insights to help companies develop richer candidate profiles, position themselves more effectively in the external labor market, and make better decisions about prospective employees.
  • Talent development: Cognitive insights can lead to more personalized recommendations for learning and career management.
  • HR operations: Cognitive computing can enable more streamlined and accurate.

When considering cognitive computing, IBM suggests companies think about:

  • Which areas in HR could benefit from the technology.
  • How might cognitive systems enhance their decision-making in talent acquisition, talent engagement and HR operations.
  • How well does the organization perform in terms of compiling workforce data from various sources?
  • Whether cognitive HR tools fit into the organization’s overall business strategy.
  • Whether new skills or competencies would be required to make cognitive tools succeed.

IBM’s not alone in its commitment to cognitive technology. Last year Deloitte Global predicted that by 2020, 95 of the world’s 100 largest enterprise software companies will have built cognitive computing into their products. By the end of 2016, it expected 80 of those companies would have already done so, a 25 percent increase over 2015. One could argue, then, that cognitive HCM technology is simply another facet of a mainstream technology movement, and will become incorporated into HR’s workflow as a component of cloud solutions organizations already use.

Image Credit: IBM