HR Technology Column Karsan Planning Great Things at IBM!

Kenexa CEO Rudy Karsan has always had the most highly developed social conscience of any business leader I know. He really wants to change the world. And now as a senior executive of IBM, one of our richest companies and long famous for spending on experimentation and innovation, he may be getting the chance he's always wanted.

Monday, February 4, 2013
Write To The Editor Reprints

Let the record show I am proud that Rudy Karsan considers me his friend. He is among the smartest, most honest and most straightforward business leaders in our world.

Years ago, when we had more face time, he would send me a copy of the latest important book he was reading. I remember one in particular: the revised edition of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat. Rudy, you may know, was born in Kenya of Indian descent, raised in Canada, and is a practicing Muslim in the United States.

Guess that qualifies him as a citizen of the world, right?

He stopped sending me important books about the world when he realized I wasn't making time to read them. He was absorbing their information, making connections between them and coming to conclusions. Fair enough. I work alone. I'll have more time soon.

We caught up at IBM's recent Connect conference which highlighted the company's Social Business and Smart Workforce initiatives, incorporating lots of what IBM acquired with Kenexa. For details on those, read Mark Smith and Josh Bersin.

Kenexa itself was comprised of more than 30 acquisitions, so Rudy is very experienced as an acquirer and apparently a clever one. Years ago, I was startled to see his company carrying about eight EVPs. "Oh, those are all former owners, continuing to work with us or sticking around to make sure their stock is eventually worth something," Rudy said at the time. Amazing, when most generally take their money and run.

Knowing that, my first question to Rudy was how long he planned to stick around IBM? And being Rudy, he told me.

"I have no contractual obligation to IBM. Just a handshake, so it really depends on what I get to do," he said.

He then described an innovative project to re-define job families by using "sabermetrics analytics," the system made famous in baseball by Bill James and recently given broader exposure in the movie, "Moneyball," based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name.

"When I was much younger, in the late '70s, I was one of many volunteers who attended baseball games and filled out pitch-by-pitch forms to send to Bill James who needed more data," he said. James was famously frustrated that major league baseball didn't publish play-by-play accounts of every game, which his analytical methods required.

(Appropriately, Rudy's first career was later as a certified actuary. Then during a shortage of them in the United States, he started his first business recruiting actuaries from Canada. I've long cherished my fantasy image of a dozen actuaries in baggy Brooks Bros. suits crouched in the back of a pick-up truck with a tarp thrown over them being smuggled across the border during a stormy night on a country road.)

Wikipedia has a long entry on Bill James and sabermetrics, if you want to know more. What's most important is he created more than a dozen new metrics for measuring players, none of which were traditionally used before.

Rudy has gotten IBM to make an "eight-digit financial commitment" (let me help here: seven digits are $1 million-$9 million) to apply the principles of sabermetrics to job families and get rid of the shibboleths surrounding them.

"Big Data changed the game of baseball. We can use it to bring dignity back to crucial job families, not to mention changing the definition of people-related costs.

"Take trash collectors, long at the bottom of the heap. We've had spectacular mortality gains in the last few decades. Antibiotics are the first cause of that. But the second is the reduction in communicable diseases, which is impacted by the effective removal and disposal of trash."

Kenexa has long employed dozens of "scientists": Ph.Ds in organizational development  and industrial organizational psychology. They power its world-leading employee survey business, assessments, big company performance management and other areas.

Rudy is very proud of them. They drive me crazy. You can't ask them a simple, straightforward question and get a simple, straightforward answer. Certainly they see more aspects and ramifications of my question than I do. I grant them that. But it all reminds me of the famous joke about business consultants, which I have extended to them.

"What does a consultant do, when you ask him what time it is? Asks to borrow your watch. What does an OD person do, he tells you how to build a watch."

I tell you all that because it's rare for Rudy to criticize OD people, which he does in giving another example of the job families project. This one involves entry-level positions in big box retail, an important focus area for him with Walmart using Kenexa BrassRing for recruiting.

"You ask them why store turnover is so high. The OD people say 'no one is leaving'. The store supervisors say 'no one ever quits'. Walmart let their cashiers switch positions among stores and found that a major reason for turnover was the length of the commute. Or the availability of child care with so many being single mothers. There is powerful financial potential here."

Newsletter Sign-Up:

HR Technology
Talent Management
HR Leadership
Inside HR Tech
Special Offers

Email Address

Privacy Policy

Rudy's second project, the one he says will make him stay at IBM for the long run, is not yet approved and much grander in scale.

"History shows the tipping point for physical hostilities in the world -- wars, civil unrest -- is when male unemployment reaches 30 percent or more. This is not correlation, but causation.

"We all know men are genetically programmed to spread their seed and make children. But without a job, they can't get a partner, so they end up raping and pillaging. That's not true in the inner cities of the U.S. because we have enough money to lock them up. We have 25 percent of the world's incarcerated people with only 5 percent of the world's population.

"A job is the source of procreation and, of course, self-respect.

"What are the engines of job creation: fiscal policy, innovation and entrepreneurs. We tried to get inside city governments at Kenexa -- scan the population, scan the jobs -- but we couldn't get close enough to the top. I'm hoping that with access to IBM's government salesforce wherever, we can change that.

"This would be a business creating jobs. Fifty years ago, 85 percent of deaths came from international hostilities. Now the majority is from internal conflicts. U.S. unemployment is not nearly high enough to feel the real pain, so my focus is on Asia and the Middle East. In Egypt, the youth killed the leaders. In Syria, leaders killed the youth.

"IBM thinks I'm full of [expletive deleted]."

Not necessarily. Jonathan Ferrar, a 12-year IBM HR veteran most recently with nearly three years of global responsibility for workforce analytics, is Rudy's direct report as vice president of Smarter Workforce, where he also leads product strategy and product management. 

He will certainly be key on the sabermetrics project, with his analytics background. As for the "jobs-creation" project, it may just be his British understatement, but Ferrar says, "Well, IBM doesn't consider Rudy barking mad."

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 16th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 7-9, 2013. Great speaking proposals are still being considered via e-mail. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which does not require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show®. He can be reached at



Copyright 2017© LRP Publications