It seems that every time you turn on the TV these days, “Watson” makes an appearance. The face of IBM’s cognitive computing revolution is technically not a face, but instead a system designed to understand, reason, learn and interact with humans. IBM held its inaugural World of Watson event in Las Vegas late last year and I had the opportunity to sit down with Bob Schultz, head of the IBM Talent Management Solutions group, which incorporates Watson Talent and Kenexa. Join me in the SpeakEasy.
Tell us about your role within IBM.
I’m the general manager for IBM Talent Management Solutions — we’re focused on how to help companies hire the best people for their needs. We also help them develop and engage employees so that they have a great experience at work. We’re marrying up our expertise and the data we have with Watson to ask how we can apply cognitive capabilities to the equation. Watson is allowing us to look at hiring and HR questions much more expansively than we could have before.
The more you can look internally at your people and your business and understand what’s going on, the better. In my role, it’s about connecting all these things together. In the past, we’ve looked at these things as separate pieces or actions. You recruit people, and you onboard people, and you pay people. Let’s carry that into coaching them on how to get better, or how to get the next role inside the company. Instead of just surveying, let’s listen, in a continuous way, to what people are doing and saying, so we start to close the loop. You can start to get better and better insights as you dig deeper and really look at people.
As we go forward, we can now start looking externally at a broader composite of a person, their interests, their social media contributions and what they actually do. Internally, we can look at what the profile is of the best performers. Who are the people producing the outcomes that are driving the business success? If it’s a salesperson, we can look at how they are doing against their quota and their pipeline, and how successful they are. You can measure that level of performance, and start to apply that to build a profile of the best kind of person to hire and identify a “cultural fit.” We can build a model of the people that stay, engage and drive the company forward, and then search for and recruit candidates who possess the same traits.
That’s interesting, because the “cultural fit” is what people typically look at as a fuzzy metric. It sounds like you’re using real data, and lots of it, to come to that conclusion, which wouldn’t have been thought possible even a few years ago. What’s changing that dynamic?
There are a couple of things that are at play. At Kenexa, we’ve been doing employee surveys and assessments for more than 15 years, so we’ve built up a database of behaviors. We have a framework for how to apply those behaviors to the analysis.
Watson gives us the horsepower now to sample pools of candidates and current employees, and more broadly look at different sources of data, in ways you couldn’t before. The hiring process is no longer about looking at a resume and asking a candidate 10 questions. It’s a much deeper dive looking into what people are really doing and what they are saying. If you want to hire an engineer, you can see if they are submitting code to the open source community and look at how it is being picked up and used. This kind of information allows you to get a better view of the candidate than you had before. There’s a massive amount of data in HR, but it’s in all these silos, and none of it’s actually connected to the business outcomes. How do you know if the person you employed is really a good hire?
How do you define who is “good”? Is it the salesperson who delivers the highest amount of revenue, or is it the one who collaborates with all the others and makes everyone around him better? There are so many different benchmarks for what’s good and what’s bad. You could have a brilliant scientist who’s a complete curmudgeon and nobody wants to work with him, but every once in a while he comes out with a game-changing innovation.
There’s a situational aspect to it, but you can also dig into the data. Almost 39 percent of the hires that people make are ones they regret. There are typically baseline assumptions, like hiring people from specific schools or with certain skills. What you can start to do is actually look at the people who are performing the best. What are their capabilities? It’s not about who’s getting the performance reviews, but instead looking at the outcomes that they’re producing. It’s more fact-based and less judgmental.
How long have you been doing this?
It’s been less than a year.
Are you liking it?
I’m loving it.
I think there are different points in time when you just have an opportunity to make a real impact. This is one of those times. IBM has an amazing array of tools on the HR front with Kenexa – I get to merge those with Watson and transform what can be done.
What were you doing before?
I’m from the technology space. I was most recently chief strategist lead at VMware for end-user computing, including mobile, social and cloud technologies. Before that I was at Citrix and then HP, in charge of enterprise server, storage and networking. Those were crucial times in storage. I was at Compaq in the 90s, and helped to bring out the PC servers and be a part of that global innovation as well.
What are you most excited about right now?
The conversation that we’re having! I think this is what brought me to IBM. A lot of people just haven’t realized the potential that exists in marrying up Watson with any industry, any profession. I was looking back on what motivates me, those moments when you can join something special that can serve as a pivotal moment in your life. Those moments are when you really can do something very cool — make a difference. A point that you can look back on later and say, “I was there when that happened. That industry changed, and I was able to do things that helped make that happen.”
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’re seeing out there right now?
Businesses are changing because of new technological capabilities in social, mobile and cloud, and that is creating pressure for them to change their business models. They need to incorporate all these new developments. That puts pressure on their HR groups to hire people who can actually drive the new business strategy. Executives need help to find those people. It’s no longer about filling slots. It’s about finding specific people that have the right skills.
To develop a system to deliver these quality candidates long-term, HR needs the ability to connect hires to outcomes. These are questions that HR wasn’t being asked before. That’s one of the challenges.
A second challenge is that while HR has a lot of data, they aren’t able to utilize it effectively. They are getting new cloud-based systems that allow mobile access and that’s great. But that is not changing the root problem – the data is still not telling them anything new. What they have has just been put somewhere else. They need a solution that can look across the data and give them insights.
There is an opportunity for HR in this mix to move up in priority and importance. HR has traditionally been a cost center. Businesses tend to look at HR departments as a place to control costs, ensure compliance and mitigate risks. Now HR is needed at the table. Executives are facing disruption on all sides and need HR to help them attract the teams that will drive their businesses successfully.
If businesses can’t navigate their personnel challenges, they won’t make it. In the end, it’s not about the technology. It’s not about installing the right systems or getting an iPad in someone’s hands. It’s about whether they are the right hands to put it in. That’s what companies need to realize. This provides an opportunity for HR to really step up — because it’s the Chief People Officer who truly drives the insights and makes the business go where it needs to go.
You mentioned there are multiple parts to what your team does. You’re helping with the screening and selection process, but you are also helping once the individuals are in the organization. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Yes – this is Watson Career Coach. Career Coach looks at how employees are performing and benchmarks that against the performance of others in the same role in the past. Watson will compare progress and analyze where current performance differs from the profile. If current performance is ahead of track, Watson updates the profile because the company will want to hire more people like the current employee. If performance is behind, Watson can make recommendations like taking a specific training class. It can be a helpful thing. Watson might notice that high achievers belong to certain groups or communities, and make a recommendation for you to connect in that way to external learning opportunities.
Helping people along the way, offering something they should consider, is the career coaching part. People come into organizations with a set of experiences and capabilities. It’s not about a checklist to get certified, it’s about helping apply those skills in useful ways.
If you are looking at how to get better at your job, Career Coach can analyze how other people have made that transition, and look at what you might need to consider. It might be an experience, or managing certain types of projects. Watson can identify a path for you.
That’s one part of Career Coach, helping you get better at your current job. Another aspect is when you want to change career paths – say moving from sales to marketing or engineering into product marketing. The whole idea is that the system is able to engage with you — you can ask questions and Watson will ask about your preferences and what fits you. The answer might be that the path you are currently on is not the path for you, and Watson can offer a path that might work better for you. Career coaching is another example of Watson being able to look across data and not just compare, but offer actionable ways to improve, get that next job or win that promotion. It’s giving you that feedback. It’s fact-based. And you can decide what you want to do with it.
Are millennials embracing this system?
It’s self-service, and it plays to them really well. It’s personalized and it’s individualized. The message is not coming from a corporate entity that appears to be telling them to do something. Watson is perceived as understanding who they are. It’s seen as being there to help them, like Netflix suggesting movies and TV shows they might like based on their personal channels.
The top items concerning engagement that come up all the time are: Are you developing me, and what’s my career path? Now there’s something available that can actually help you navigate through the different paths.
Have you incorporated an element of gamification into this?
For this tool it’s been discussed, but we’re not at that point yet. We definitely want to make it fun for people to utilize and engage with. We see this as a next step, because it’s natural.
What is one of your greatest concerns for the industry right now? What are you most worried about?
I guess I’ve been more focused on the opportunities — it’s in my nature to look at the glass being half full. I think the challenges for the industry are not so much stemming from the industry, as much as they are around the industry. The challenges center around the increasing complexity of business. We need to make tools and capabilities easy and simple to use so businesses don’t need specialized data scientists just to survive.
Our biggest challenge at IBM is to connect all the different pieces together. People are depending upon the ecosystem. When there are 200 different algorithms out there, it just becomes a cacophony of noise. New applications are being created every day to solve specific problems, but they don’t work with anything else. How do you stitch all those elements together to provide useful access and insights? The more data you can look at, the better your insights are going to be.
Do you see any increase in organizations willing to spend more on consulting to gain these necessary insights?
There’s an increase in organizations that are willing to spend on analytics. There was recently a study that found that more than 70 percent of executives realize they need to invest in people analytics. That’s helpful. We’re seeing it already. Talent analytics is the fastest growing area in software for HR. It’s relatively small, but growing the fastest.
OK – we need to know a little bit more about Bob now. Are there any words or phrases that you tend to overuse?
That would be an interesting question for my team! I probably overuse disruptive. “Let’s disrupt ourselves. Look across things and challenge your assumptions.” I say that a lot to people. I also say “it’s all about execution” a lot. Success is in the small details. It’s great to talk about strategy, but you need a plan of implementation. How are we going to get there? Execution is what sets people apart.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
I have almost everything on my playlist. We have country music because we lived in Texas during the Compaq days. We also have pop, easy listening, Colbie Caillat and Sara Bareilles. I like to listen to classical music to relax.
What is your favorite band of all time?
It’s going to have to be the Beach Boys because that was the concert I took my wife to when she was my girlfriend.
Is that what sealed the deal?
It was a big moment, yes. It was one of those pivotal moments we discussed earlier. She was going to dump me, or we were going to become an item. That concert was the concert that kept us together. If I didn’t get tickets to that, I don’t know what would have happened.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Workflow.