Using AI for a year and a half, IBM saves 12,000 hours for the HR department.

Translator: Park Seong-gwi

IBM has automated hundreds of human resources tasks with AI tools.

In 2011, IBM’s artificial intelligence system Watson successfully defeated the champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in the American game show “Jeopardy!”—at that time, the Watson system still occupied a room-sized space. In the final round of the three-day man vs. machine competition, Jennings jokingly made a concession: “Welcome our computer overlord!”

But that was over a decade ago. In November 2022, OpenAI released a new generation of artificial intelligence product called ChatGPT, once again showcasing the potential of artificial intelligence to the world.

As technology analyst Benedict Evans pointed out in Fortune, IBM is no longer at the forefront of artificial intelligence technology development, but it is still actively finding ways to apply AI technology to its operations. And to do this, talent proficient in AI technology is needed.

IBM’s Watson system from 10 years ago impressed many. And in the following 10 years, IBM developed several AI tools to help businesses improve operational efficiency and maximize productivity. IBM stated that its developed AI tools mainly target “uniquely human problems.” Nick Ramolexes, IBM’s HR director, said that within the company, AI technology has freed many employees from tedious backend administrative work, allowing them to focus on more human-centric tasks.

Replacing human labor with AI is nothing new, but IBM has found rich application prospects for AI in the field of human resources management, so it has made significant investments in this area. For example, it launched a virtual compensation and benefits assistant called AskHR. With it, if employees do not understand the vacation policy, they do not need to go to the HR manager for specialized consultation or spend time searching for relevant policy documents on the company’s website. Instead, they can directly consult Watson, which will automatically respond based on the employee’s length of service, work location, and days of vacation already taken.

IBM also applies AI technology to performance evaluations, allowing AI to automatically assess which employees meet the criteria for promotion or salary increase. Ramolexes said that the AI platform can automatically analyze relevant data, including employees’ years of service, past performance ratings, skill structures, and whether employees have received timely training, among other factors. Then, it will send recommendations to the manager for cross-checking. Managers can ask AI why a particular employee is not on the list. AI might answer that it is because the employee has not met certain qualification requirements, and it will also provide the date of the next exam for obtaining that certification.

After saving this time, HR managers can spend more energy guiding employees on self-improvement and career development, according to Ramolexes.

Lamorex pointed out, “There are more than 280 different AI automation systems running in our human resources department. It has made the department more humane because we are spending time on more important things.”

In an op-ed column for Fortune in April this year, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna believes that artificial intelligence can help businesses “handle most of what people consider repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to take on higher-value work.” He pointed out that IBM’s human resources department, after using AI systems, has reduced the number of HR employees engaged in related manual work from 700 to less than 50.

Lamorex also stated that in the past, there was a lot of back-and-forth communication between managers and employees in the HR department, but in the past 18 months, IBM’s human resources department has saved nearly 12,000 hours of work time by using AI automation systems.

Ironically, although AI has increased the efficiency of the HR department, it ultimately risks causing many HR employees to lose their jobs. For example, in May of this year, IBM announced a temporary freeze on hiring for certain back-office positions, many of which are positions in the human resources department. Tasks such as writing recruitment information and supervising employee cross-departmental mobility can now be fully handled by AI. According to Bloomberg, this hiring freeze by IBM may affect approximately 7,800 positions. Lamorex stated that the decision to freeze such positions was intentional and a strategic decision of the company.

“We don’t want to hire a lot of people and then find out that most of their work has been replaced by AI technology. So our attitude is cautious, and we have suspended recruitment for certain positions so that we can shift our focus to positions that generate income and build products.”

The impact of artificial intelligence on employment has always been a highly concerned issue. A report released last month by the World Economic Forum pointed out that AI technology may affect 40% of the total working hours of humans, especially the demand for secretarial positions in the market may rapidly decline.

A report from the US consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed that US companies laid off more than 80,000 people last month, an increase of 20% compared to April. Among them, nearly 4,000 layoffs were related to artificial intelligence (about 5% of the total). In January of this year, IBM also announced the layoff of approximately 3,900 people. However, the company’s management stated that the layoffs were a result of asset sales, not the impact of artificial intelligence.

But Lamorex also admitted that she is seriously considering whether the company may lay off employees due to the application of AI. “What the company needs to consider is how to stay ahead of the times and provide skills and training. But if you have reached the point where you need to leave, it’s too late.” She suggested that large companies should keep their AI strategies transparent and provide necessary training for employees to ensure that they are not abandoned by the company’s future development.

In Ramorex’s view, freezing certain positions’ recruitment is clearly a wise move. Because IBM is still conducting experiments in the field of artificial intelligence, while the company is also continuously collecting data on work efficiency and helping employees improve their skills to meet the needs of the future AI era.

“What we really need to focus on are the positions that make up 80% to 90% of the total and cannot be replaced by AI, but it is still necessary for the people in these positions to relearn.” she said. “How can you provide forward-looking skill training? What do you think the situation will be like 18 months from now? Which parts of the job are likely to change? Do employees have training opportunities? We must make changes around these questions.”

For many years, IBM has advocated for skill-based recruitment. Ramorex said that IBM’s current recruitment strategy has not changed, and the company has increased its recruitment efforts for top AI talent. At the same time, more than 50% of IBM’s recruitment positions in the United States do not require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“We have found that some AI and automation talent did not learn these skills through traditional channels. They may have learned them through community college courses or through online training camps. And some people learned these skills in the military.”

Ramorex mentioned that IBM now conducts a series of new assessments for job applicants, including whether they have the ability to use AI tools and large language models, whether they can ask the right questions, whether they can design AI processes for relevant fields, whether they can analyze correctly, whether they can recognize which tasks are worth automating, and so on. If they have deficiencies in certain areas, they must have the ability to continue learning.

“In the past, if you obtained a degree and became an expert in a certain field, that identity might accompany you for decades. But with the emergence of new technologies, the half-life of skills is rapidly decreasing.” Ramorex said. “No matter how the next steps develop, for employees, no matter what industry you enter, what job you do, whether you are a newcomer or an experienced worker, having the ability to continue learning is the individual’s greatest asset, and it is also a decisive skill.”

She concluded: “Now every company is a tech company, and we are all influenced by artificial intelligence.”

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