IBM spent 2017 enhancing various areas in its talent management suite, Kenexa, by plugging in its artificial intelligence engine, Watson. Now IBM is looking to position Watson as an aid to HR managers in making the most of one of the hottest trends in business tech: robotic process automation.

IBM created a flurry of interest when it announced its collaboration late last month with RPA vendor Blue Prism. As part of that announcement, IBM revealed that pharmacy giant Walgreens “is now using robotic processing automation to support its HR function.” Walgreens has been using Blue Prism’s “software robots” in conjunction with IBM’s digital process automation tools to handle “repetitive work” in HR operations, in labor-intensive areas like benefits and claims, says Gene Chao, vice president, IBM automation, in IBM global business services.

“The RPA opportunities we are exploring today are game changing for our shared services function within and across the company,” wrote Curt Burghardt, Walgreens’ senior director, HR shared services, in a note about his presentation at the Intelligent Automation conference last year in New Orleans.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

New research shows that nearly half of HR organizations are focused on such basic process automation, according to Josh Bersin, founder and principal of Bersin by Deloitte, the market research firm’s HR technology wing. Even among those who already automate certain processes, HR managers admit they lose, on average, 14 hours a week manually completing tasks that could be automated, according to a survey of more than 200 HR managers by online employment website CareerBuilder. So far, HR process automation “is centered around messaging, benefits and compensation,” but it’s also being used to handle functions related to employee learning and talent management, survey respondents say.

Those statistics help explain why IBM is “right in the middle” of an RPA investment and development effort, touts Chao, having struck relationships similar to its Blue Prism collaboration with RPA vendors Automation Anywhere and UIPath. IBM brings to RPA considerable experience in business process management (BPM), an ambitious methodology to overhaul and optimize an organization’s ways of doing business using analysis and automation. Ironically, the current success of RPA can be ascribed, as least in part, to it being a more focused, more effective — and cheaper — alternative to BPM.

Still, IBM is looking to apply its business process expertise and tools to RPA to help create “an orchestrated model” of processes and workflow, first at the department level and eventually at the enterprise level, says Chao. In HR, that means “redesigning workflows across the HCM landscape,” he says.

By incorporating Watson, “we bring the brains” to RPA platforms, says Chao. Watson is providing RPA robots with “cognitive capabilities” such as chatbots, for more effective and efficient interaction, and machine learning, for pattern recognition. For instance, Watson might alert the RPA that it’s working with a new version of Workday, whereas the “RPA may not recognize that Workday has changed,” he says. By incorporating such cognitive tools, “the RPAs are connecting intelligence to how work gets done at a process level,” Chao says.

It’s worth noting that IBM’s efforts in incorporating Watson in its talent acquisition suite have proved successful, according to one market observer.

“IBM is leaps ahead in delivering value-added cognitive capabilities” to talent acquisition technology, according to research and consulting firm IDC, which named IBM’s Kenexa suite a market leader in its most recent “Worldwide Modern Talent Acquisition Systems 2017 Vendor Assessment” report.

In working with RPA, IBM is bringing that same domain knowledge and experience to an area that’s “top of mind” among HR managers, says Mollie Lombardi, CEO of Aptitude Research Partners, an HR technology consulting firm.

“They’re taking their knowledge of machine learning and making [automation] friendly and fun and efficient to interact with,” she says.

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