The bleary-eyed attendees sipping their coffee and munching their pastries got a non-caffeinated jolt at this morning’s opening general session at HR Tech when Kenexa founder Rudy Karsan took to the stage and told them why he’s so optimistic.
“We are living in the golden age!” he said, a statement that might be viewed quizzically in this era of government shutdowns and economic and political turmoil. But that’s a shortsighted view, as Karsan went on to note how, in fact, the human race is much better off today than at any time in its history.
“Every positive metric has not only grown but accelerated in the last 50 years, while every negative metric is decelerating,” he said. Today, an average person has better health than a monarch did 100 years ago, Karsan noted. Rapidly growing GDP and plummeting illiteracy levels are being accompanied by innovations such as vertical farming, transforming cities like Munich, where a growing percentage of that German city’s fresh produce is produced within its boundaries.
The future will be even better because of innovations like cognitive computing, said Karsan. This led him to the main part of his presentation, which was a demonstration of how IBM’s Watson computer can help organizations boost employee engagement and productivity by rapidly answering their questions and helping them with their development. (IBM recently acquired Kenexa.)
“One of the best ways to engage employees is to give them access to information effortlessly, where and when they need it,” he said.
Watson can serve not only as a “knowledge concierge” to employees, quickly resolving concerns related to payroll and their employer’s philanthropic activities, but it can also help managers translate the findings of employee-engagement surveys into action plans so they can become more effective mentors and champions to their employees, said Karsan. It’s able to do this not only by supplying direct answers but also combing through the company’s informational warehouses and finding relevant documents and reports, he said.
In a follow-up interview after the presentation, Karsan told me that Watson is already live at clients such as USAA. “We do expect some bumps in the road as we deploy Watson to other companies — it’ll be no different than any other major innovation,” he said. “Look at the early days of the Internet.”
Speaking of the Internet, it’s important to note that Watson isn’t connected to the Internet; it hasn’t been programmed but instead is taught the domains it knows.
I asked Karsan whether having constant access to a service like Watson could risk employees becoming a bit lazy — what if Watson went down one day and they’d have to do their own research? “If you have the right person in the right job, laziness does not exist,” he responded. “The laziness trait gets expanded when you have people doing what they perceive as meaningless work. That’s why it’s important to put the right person in the right job in the first place.”
Karsan says he’s particularly excited by Watons’ potential impact on managerial and leadership development. “These are not hard sciences,” he said. “It’s more of an art form — there’s lots of communication and collaboration involved. Watson will give you a range of solutions, rather than a deterministic solution. Watson will not replace judgment. It will lend precision to a lot of the guesswork out there — it will let us replace guesswork with data and science.”