Getty Images/iStockphoto

IBM seeks bigger role in HR tech with Watson Orchestrate

IBM Watson Orchestrate, which automates repetitive HR tasks, uses a conversational interface to manage and simplify multiple application workflows in HR.

IBM has a product it contends will improve HR department automation, reduce tedious tasks and make it easier to manage applications. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna has been touting the capability of AI to automate backend processes, and recently said the company was considering a pause on hiring back-office positions that could be replaced by AI.

IBM Watson Orchestrate automates processes, adding a level of intelligence and a conversational AI interface for interacting with the third-party application and the user. Orchestrate has been in testing for nearly two years. IBM released a base model last year but made its enterprise edition generally available earlier this year.

Although the tool can be applied broadly, IBM sees an opportunity to address the fragmentation of HR applications where departments may use multiple applications to complete a specific task, said Parul Mishra, vice president of product management for IBM Watson Orchestrate.

Mishra said Orchestrate uses AI to help summarize the output of various HR apps, bringing information together in workflows so users don't have to learn every screen or step involved with completing a task.

"Today, we hire for competence in [HR] tools," Mishra said. But she added that Watson Orchestrate makes specific tool knowledge less important because it automates the process.

"HR professionals should be hired for their ability to find the best candidate for the job, not for navigating to the tool and entering fields and multiple screens," she said.

Mishra said Orchestrate uses a conversational-like process to interact with applications and complete tasks. That includes, for instance, posting a job ad on multiple websites and tracking when candidates apply.

IBM has been using this AI-enabled tool internally and said it completed HR tasks 40% faster and more accurately than humans, Mishra said.

In May, Krishna said the company expects AI to reduce the need for back-office roles by around 30% or nearly 8,000 jobs, including HR, Bloomberg reported. IBM, in a statement following Krishna's comments, said its hiring is focused on revenue-generating roles: "We're being very selective when filling jobs that don't directly touch our clients or technology. We are actively hiring for thousands of positions right now."

Testing the waters

Evelyn McMullen, an analyst at Nucleus Research, said, "IBM is trying to test the waters in HR without fully committing to developing its own dedicated HCM product offering." But she added that she sees difficulty ahead for IBM, especially since many HCM platforms have built-in automation.

IBM is trying to test the waters in HR without fully committing to developing its own dedicated HCM product offering.
Evelyn McMullenAnalyst, Nucleus Research

"Given the current trend of cost consolidation across business technology, adding an entirely new solution on top of existing infrastructure is counter to what we are seeing from customers," she said.

But IBM said that Watson Orchestrate could provide a benefit to HR systems through automation. A talent application system can be hard to learn, for example, and tasks such as assigning a manager to an organization can be a 20-step process, according to Mishra.

"We are trying to solve for repetitive things that people do with tools like Workday," Mishra said. Orchestrate can do this by making the application easier to use and conversational, while adding intelligence between the HR application and the user. She said that instead of going into Workday, a user can communicate directly with the application through the chat space.

The Orchestrate product has some pre-built connections, such as with SAP, but it doesn't cover every applicant tracking system on the market. Mishra said that as long as the SaaS provides an open API, a third-party application service can be imported quickly.

Eser Rizaoglu, a Gartner analyst, said technology adoption is generally a struggle for HR because it has too many applications. There's an emerging market around digital adoption platforms, which help users navigate applications. For instance, if someone wants to book time off, it will show the user how to do so step-by-step.

Holger Mueller, vice president and analyst at Constellation Research, said IBM is targeting HR first with this product because it's low-hanging enterprise fruit with more integrations and interfaces than other back-office systems, including third-party vendors and governmental systems.

"The space attracts players, and IBM is new to the space," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

Dig Deeper on Talent management

Business Analytics
Content Management
and ESG