IBM wants to keep its employees from quitting, and it’s using artificial intelligence to do it.
In a recent CNBC interview, chief executive Ginni Rometty said that thanks to AI, the tech and consulting giant can predict with 95 percent accuracy the employees who are likely to leave in the next six months. The “proactive retention” tool — which IBM uses internally but is also selling to clients — analyzes thousands of pieces of data and then nudges managers toward the employees who may be on their way out, telling them to “do something now so it never enters their mind,” Rometty said.
IBM’s efforts to use AI to learn who might quit is one of the more high-profile recent examples of the way data science, “deep learning” and “predictive analytics” are increasingly infiltrating the traditionally low-tech human resources department, arming personnel chiefs with more rigorous tools and hard data around the tricky art of managing people.
.. Almost every Fortune 100 company, said Brian Kropp, group vice president for advisory firm Gartner’s HR practice, has a head of “talent analytics” and a team of data scientists in human resources.
“Compare that to three years ago, when there were maybe 10 to 15 percent that had a named and known head of talent analytics,” said Kropp, whose firm counts IBM as a client. “It’s the fastest-growing job in HR.”
.. Analysts say retention, in particular, is a critical area for the application of artificial intelligence. For one, there’s a clear event that happens — someone quits and leaves the company, or threatens to — that helps data scientists seek patterns for intervening.
“The person was here, and then the person was not here,” Kropp said. “It is where the more sophisticated analytics work in HR is going.”
Meanwhile, especially in a labor market with an unemployment rate below 4 percent and a near-record rate of people quitting their jobs for new gigs, there’s increasing worries about the high cost of not keeping great employees. The cost of trying to hire a replacement, Kropp said, is about half that person’s salary.
IBM’s use of AI in HR, which began in 2014, comes at a time when the 108-year-old company has been trying to shift its massive 350,000-person workforce to the most current tech skills and includes 18 different AI deployments across the department. Diane Gherson, IBM’s chief human resources officer, said in an interview that using tech to predict who might leave — considering thousands of factors such as
- job tenure,
- internal and external pay comparisons, and recent promotions —
was the first area the department focused on.
“It was an obvious issue,” she said. “We were going out and replacing people at a huge premium.”
IBM had already been using algorithms and testing hypotheses about who would leave and why. Simple factors, such as the length of an employee’s commute, were helpful but only so telling.
“You can’t possibly come up with every case,” Gherson said. “The value you get from AI is it doesn’t rely on hypotheses being developed in advance; it actually finds the patterns.”
For instance, the system spotted one software engineer who hadn’t been promoted at the same rate as three female peers who all came from the same top university computer science program. The women had all been at IBM for four years but worked in different parts of the sprawling company. While her manager didn’t know she was comparing herself to these women, the engineer was all too aware her former classmates had been promoted and she hadn’t, Gherson said. After the risk was flagged, she was given more mentoring and stretch assignments, and she remains at IBM.
While the program urges managers to intervene for employees who have hard-to-find skills — offering them raises, public recognition or promotions — potential quitters that the system identifies as having less-valuable skills or who are low performers don’t necessarily get the same response.
“Our universe for doing this is not the whole IBM universe, and does not include low performers,” Gherson said. “The ones who are in high demand today and high demand tomorrow are going to be the ones we treat with a very high-touch” response.
IBM does not analyze or monitor employees’ email, external social media accounts or other internal message boards as part of its predictions on who has one foot out the door. But some start-ups have scraped publicly available LinkedIn data, for instance, to predict probable departures.
Meanwhile, other vendors have recently begun analyzing data to predict how lower employee engagement scores can give companies a nine-month heads-up about the groups of workers that might be at risk of leaving. Josh Bersin, an industry analyst who focuses on HR technology, said some companies have taken a high-level look at email to make predictions.
He recently wrote about how some firms have studied email “metadata” and communication patterns, finding that people who quit were less engaged in their email for up to six months before leaving.
“Predictive attrition” methods are becoming popular, he said, because “it’s so hard to hire people. Companies just want to know why people are leaving, and they want data about why people are leaving.”
How effective such systems really are at predicting who might leave — and whether the interventions suggested will always work to keep them — is still somewhat unknown, Kropp said. And some patterns the AI might turn up — for instance, women of childbearing age who leave tend to have higher turnover rates — might be tricky for managers to address.
But they may still offer an edge over the surprise office visit from an employee no one guessed was about to leave.
“There’s still always going to be a lot of art, and a lot of uncertainty,” Kropp said. “But it’s still better than a manager guessing.”
There are many technology jobs where you can throw on your headphones and block out the rest of the world for large chunks of your day, but product management isn’t one of them. Interacting with others is a huge part of the job and being a hermit simply isn’t an option.
Working alongside a wide range of people is one of the benefits of product management, as you are the facilitator of collaboration, the hub at the center of various organizational spokes, and the engine that turns a market requirement or customer request into a useful piece of functionality. But the job can become unpleasant quickly when you don’t enjoy dealing with the people you must collaborate with on a regular basis.
Symptoms of an unsatisfactory team environment include complaining about individuals, avoiding meetings, antisocial or aggressive behavior, and obvious exasperation. But even when a product manager isn’t broadcasting their unhappiness with their coworkers, they can still be silently seething as they dread another day dealing with someone who makes them miserable.
And since talent-craving companies are always advertising what great places they are to work, the grass can definitely seem greener elsewhere.
Everyone dreams of having a job they love, where they jump out of bed excited to go into the office and see what the day holds. While many people eventually shelve those aspirations for a steady paycheck, most product managers don’t have to.
Instead they find products and companies that are exciting and opportunities they are truly passionate about. Why work on something uninspiring using outdated technology and stale business models when there are so many other opportunities to build something truly innovative that changes people’s lives?
Even in a space that may not be as sexy as self-driving cars or virtual reality, there are still many chances to innovate within an industry, leverage emerging technologies, and shake up the status quo. When a product manager doesn’t feel like their current gig is giving them that chance, they’re likely to look elsewhere for a job that will let them scratch that itch.
“Due to the varying scope of responsibilities for the product manager from company to company, the skills and experiences at one place may not translate to automatic success at another,” says Vinh Jones of Lithium Technologies. “As the hiring manager, you have best grasp on what skills are needed to be successful within your current environment.”
Although you can’t always control all the variables enough to create a totally harmonious experience, you can at least mitigate the drama with some good planning. Of course symbiotic personalities within the product team itself are also key; there should be good dialogue and trust between team members and not too much competitiveness and jockeying for position.
Beyond personalities, roles should also be assigned to create an opportunity for product managers to be successful while developing additional skills and experiences. Giving them responsibility for discrete areas of the product that are within their capabilities but still provide stretch goals and challenges is a tricky, but essential, balancing act for leaders.
Not everyone dreams of being a manager, sometimes you just get elevated to the role because of your excellent work as an individual contributor. But once you get the title and a team, the hard part begins.
There’s no shame in admitting that you’re not a great manager right out of the box. You just need to identify and acknowledge your own growth areas and work to address them. As a leader, your focus is now on your team versus yourself, and you might need to add some skills to your repertoire to become the manager you want to be (and your team wants as well).
Are you setting clear and achievable goals? Are you having quality one-on-one’s with each product manager on a regular basis? Are you providing constructive feedback and praise? This isn’t rocket science, but for someone not used to managing others it’s easy to fall into bad habits and not cover Management 101 items while still focusing on product strategy.
The other tricky part of management is knowing when to step back and let your team members succeed or struggle on their own.
“Don’t solve their people problems. Don’t make decisions for them. Overall, don’t disempower them by doing their job,” says Brandon Chu of Shopify. “Doing so sets them up to fail, because people around them will no longer perceive them as having the agency to make decisions, and their job-ending frustration is self fulfilling from there.”
While the have-to-dos have to get done, product managers should be encouraged to pursue their own ideas as well, as long as they don’t become too much of a distraction. There are plenty of examples of unexpected positive outcomes coming from letting individual employees experiment (think Google’s 20% rule) and it will let product manager’s scratch that itch without actually leaving the company.
“Talented employees are passionate. Providing opportunities for them to pursue their passions improves their productivity and job satisfaction,” says Travis Bradberry of TalentSmart. “Studies show that people who are able to pursue their passions at work experience flow, a euphoric state of mind that is five times more productive than the norm.”
The Trump administration is not prepared for a foreign policy crisis.
But the administration has not faced an actual national security crisis that tests it and us in a profound way. There is no shortage of possible candidates — a major terrorist attack; a debilitating cyberattack; an infectious disease outbreak; an incident with North Korea, Iran, China or Russia that escalates into a broader conflict. Yet no administration in modern memory has been less prepared to deal with a true crisis than this one.
I spent nearly 25 years in government, and almost as much time studying it. When it comes to the effective stewardship of our nation’s security — especially during crises — the most successful administrations had three things in common:
- process and
People with the experience, temperament and intellectual honesty to give a president good ideas and to dissuade him from pursuing bad ones. An effective process that brings key stakeholders together to question one another’s assumptions, stress test options and consider second-order effects. And all of this in the service of developing clear policies that provide marching orders to everyone in an administration, while putting allies at ease and adversaries on notice about our intentions.
The George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the end of the Cold War powerfully illustrates these principles. Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and a remarkable team of senior officials proved to be the right people in the right place at the right time. Mr. Scowcroft’s interagency process became a model for every successive administration until this one. The policies they pursued were clear, sustained and comprehensive. The Obama administration’s successes in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and handling the Ebola epidemic were the results of similar strengths.
When it comes to people, process and policy, Mr. Trump’s administration has gone from bad to disastrous.
For two years, cooler heads like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser H.R. McMaster served as something of a check on Mr. Trump’s worst instincts: invade Venezuela, withdraw from NATO, evacuate every American from the Korean Peninsula.Now, their successors — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser — are as likely to encourage Mr. Trump’s follies as to oppose them.
Equally important, the Partnership for Public Service has found that almost 40 percent of leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled across the administration — at last count 275 out of 705 jobs. About a third of the State Department’s 198 key posts are vacant. One-quarter of the administration’s departments are led by “acting” secretaries.
Under Mr. Bolton, the National Security Council headed by the president, the Principals’ Committee headed by Mr. Bolton and the Deputies Committee, which I once led and which coordinates policy deliberations, have gone into deep hibernation.
Some combination of these committees typically met multiple times a day. Now, it is reportedly once or twice a week at most. The result is greater control of the policy process for Mr. Bolton and fewer messy meetings in which someone might challenge his wisdom. Mr. Mattis, who once complained about death by meetings, protested to Mr. Bolton about the lack of them.
.. The absence of process has consequences. There were minimal efforts to prepare Mr. Trump for his summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in which he unilaterally ended military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and mused about withdrawing all American forces. Nor was there a process to game out Mr. Trump’s recent decision to pull out of Syria — instead, the relevant committees scrambled after the fact to bring some order to Mr. Trump’s impulses. Even the welcome progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan has been hobbled by Mr. Trump’s arbitrary and then partly rescinded announcement that he was cutting forces in Afghanistan by half, thereby undercutting our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.
As for policy, it’s the lifeblood of any administration. Secretaries, other senior officials, ambassadors and envoys all need to know what the policy is to explain it to others and bring predictability to our nation’s foreign engagements. Mr. Trump’s failure to develop policies — and his tendency to countermand them by tweet — have caused major confusion worldwide about where we stand on issue after issue. In a crisis, having clear policy principles is even more important. Take the meltdown in Venezuela. The administration deserves credit for leading the international isolation of the country’s illegitimate president, Nicolás Maduro. But there is no evidence it has a comprehensive strategy to advance a peaceful transition — or a Plan B if Mr. Maduro digs in or lashes out.
Axios reported that Mr. Trump likes to express his disdain for policy by citing the boxer Mike Tyson: Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth. It’s true that no policy fully survives first contact. But if you don’t spend time anticipating the shots you are likely to take, you wind up flailing about wildly. Which sounds a lot like Mr. Trump.
These past two years, most of our foreign policy setbacks have been modest, and mostly of Mr. Trump’s own making. These next two, we may not be so lucky.