IBM’s HR leaders on how a culture of innovation can boost employee engagement

Editor’s note: Originally published on July 22, 2016. Updated with new interview on Aug. 7.

Innovation is built into IBM Corp.’s DNA, and that extends to its HR practices, its HR leaders say.

It’s no accident that, in addition to running one of the largest research and development divisions in the world and being the top U.S. patent recipient for 23 consecutive years, the Armonk, New York-based tech giant has been declared one of Canada’s most desirable employers by international HR services provider Randstad Holding nv for two years in a row.

“At IBM… we have a heavy focus on innovation – innovation in our products and solutions that we give over to our clients, but also innovation that we hope, and that we know, impacts the world,” Katherine Faichnie, IBM Canada’s director and HR leader, tells

By improving its employee experience, IBM Canada knows that employees are more likely to not only work with the company, but stay and help it grow – and ultimately, provide better service to clients, Faichnie says.

“Surveys and statistics show that employees that are proud of the company they work for deliver better customer service,” she notes.

And just like its products and solutions, the company applies its ethos of innovation to multiple facets of HR, Faichnie says.

Innovating performance management

Unlike the company’s dedication to research and patent applications, IBM’s current performance management strategy isn’t even a year old – but like many of its newest technological breakthroughs, it was driven by big data, Carrie Altieri, IBM’s vice-president of communications for HR, says.

“There’s almost no area of HR at IBM that hasn’t been reinvented because of data,” she says. “There are hundreds of data scientists within IBM that are looking at HR… and the surprising reality is that the one skill expected more from HR people than ever before is analytics capabilities.”

Much of the reason for IBM’s reliance on HR data lies, of course, with the sheer scale of its operations: the company has hired more than 100,000 new employees worldwide since January 2015, including 30,000 since January alone.

“If you look at our current portfolio, IBM is a very different business than when I started over 10 years ago,” Altieri says. “All of this analytics and cloud computing and helping clients design their web interface… that’s all work that we were not doing years ago, but we’re doing it now. So we need those skills.”

Coming from the wider tech world and accustomed to user-friendly consumer experiences, many of these new hires expect their work life to be much more personalized, she says – that they will be asked for their opinion and that the company will act on it, a feature that was absent from IBM’s former annual performance review system, known as Personal Business Commitments.

“That system, which we had in place for more than a decade, was no longer aligned with how IBM-ers were working,” Altieri says. “It wasn’t even aligned to how work gets done anymore.”

And so, rather than convening a group of HR managers to design a new performance management system, the company’s HR department shifted its focus to soliciting ideas from employees, using Connections, IBM’s internal social media platform, to run roundtables and encourage feedback.

The company’s initial blog post asking employees to share their ideas for a new performance management system received more than 200,000 views alone, and staff collected nearly 100,000 comments from the project’s various blogs and physical roundtables.

“We wanted an online debate,” Altieri says. “Like, ‘You’re not really going to make any changes… You have the whole thing worked out, and this is all for theatre. You’re going to come out in two weeks and tell us your plan.’ We received comments like that.”

Using social listening technologies, the company also determined which demographics weren’t fully participating in the project – and made a point of including them in the roundtables.

IBM even crowdsourced the name – “Checkpoint” – which Altieri says captures the move from an annual performance review to quarterly feedback that a majority of the company’s workforce was seeking.

“They got this sense of, ‘wow! People were listening,'” she says. “It was an interesting exercise.”

Despite its scale, the project’s development was surprisingly nimble: by applying analytics, IBM’s HR team was able to develop Checkpoint within 90 days, rolling it out internationally to every one of its 378,000 employees, spanning 170 countries, in February.

Innovating elsewhere


IBM receives more than 1 million unsolicited applications per year, and is looking to fill some 25,000 positions at any given time, Altieri says.

And so the company’s recruitment team relies on a Watson-based APIs to notify them whenever an applicant might be an especially good fit for a particular role.

“Fitbit for managers”

Another application uses predictive analytics to notify managers when an employee might be at risk of defecting.

“It’s almost like a Fitbit for managers,” Altieri says. “The fitbit alerts you when you have to move around… this says your employees may not be getting the attention they need to keep them on track.”

And whether the problem is mentoring or money, the application gives managers whatever tools they need to do something about it: for example, authorizing a pay and benefits increase of a certain amount.

Continuing education

IBM has also released an in-house professional development platform, which comprises both in-house lessons and outside education programs available to its employees.

“Imagine logging into Netflix,” Altieri says. “You have different channels of not only what you like, but what others like you are picking, and what, based on your role and the work you do, you might be interested in learning about. And if you opt out of a suggested class, the system learns.”

Award-winning HR since 2015

Few achievements illustrate the success of IBM’s HR efforts better than its ranking in the Randstad Awards, the HR service provider’s annual quest to determine the most attractive employers in the world.

Now its seventh year, the 2016 survey comprised more than 200,000 people from 25 countries that collectively represent 75 per cent of the global economy, with around 7400 respondents hailing from Canada.

When asked what they look for in an employer, the Canadians polled – including students, employees, and unemployed job seekers between the ages of 18 and 65 – listed salary, long-term job security, and a pleasant working environment as their top three concerns.

What Canadian workers want
The top factors that influence Canadians when deciding which employer they want to work for. (Randstad)

When it came to individual attributes, IBM Canada came in first place for training and career progression opportunities, and second for interesting job content and salary and employee benefits. It was also the top employer of choice among employees with post-secondary education and respondents who possessed graduate degrees.

Employer branding matters, Randstad emphasized in its 2016 report: the company’s research indicates that companies with good employer brands save 10 per cent on payroll costs, have 28 per cent less staff turnover, and spend 46 per cent less per hire.

The most attractive employer in Canada this year was Guelph-based energy firm Canadian Solar Inc., which received a 54.38 per cent attractiveness score – that is, among respondents who knew about the company, 54.38 per cent wanted to work there.

Other tech-related companies on the list included TD Bank, which came in 13th place with an attractiveness score of 44.52 per cent, the Royal Bank of Canada, which came in at 14th with a score of 44.05 per cent, and advisory firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), which came in at 18th with a score of 43.54 per cent.

In Canada, IBM came in second place, with an attractiveness score of 51.77 per cent – which IBM Canada’s Faichnie admits “felt great,” but also like a step down from last year.

“Last year we were actually number one,” she says. “This year we were a little disappointed not to be the number-one employer brand, but it puts us in a position of feeling like we’re the challenger, and so our goal is to take the information and improve our overall branding and employee experience so that next year we get back to the top of the list.”

After all, she says, IBM’s status as a desirable employer hardly came about by accident.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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