HR Technology Column Joins the Shifting Talent-Management War

IBM is using its acquisition of Kenexa to enter the talent-management war just as it seems to be shifting to unified systems. Without a core HRMS, the new IBM Kenexa Talent Suite will go to market with some very flashy technology (including parts of Watson) and a distinctly modern notion of what "integrated" applications mean.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014
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A year and a month after acquiring Kenexa, IBM took the occasion of its January Connect2014 Conference to explain what it's going to do with it. And users attending the co-located Kenexa World Conference got to hear it, too.

Say hello to the "IBM Kenexa Talent Suite," a major part of IBM's ongoing Smarter Workforce initiative, scheduled for a first release by April. While IBM executives are great at staying on message, sometimes their messages are a little different. After personal interviews with all the major product executives and press conferences with others, here's what you should know.

At a time when more and more companies seem to want one unified system with core HR and talent management, IBM has chosen to take eight software elements of Kenexa and a passel of existing and new IBM technologies (including the first social software) to offer a stand-alone talent-management suite without core. Most of it will be multi-tenant SaaS, but some modules will be available on-premise.

Partly, that must come from the recognition that many large companies (and IBM's clients are among the biggest) are not so eager to rip and replace their on-premise HRMS -- be it PeopleSoft, Oracle or SAP - or to buy the SaaS talent-management modules sold by their vendors. The proof of that is independent talent suite vendor Cornerstone OnDemand, which continues to set sales records.

The familiar Kenexa pieces in the suite are Kenexa BrassRing (with Social Sourcing), pre-hire assessment, on-boarding, Kenexa Talent Manager (including performance, comp and succession planning), and four futures: Kenexa Survey and Survey Analytics, IBM Social Learning and Kenexa Comp Analyst.

IBM Social Learning will be comprised of two Kenexa products (LMS and LCMS) bought two years ago from a Boston company called Outstart. And it will sit on IBM's new Social Learning platform.

Also still futures are the "Unified Talent Profile" (a bear for every vendor putting pieces together), a competency model based on incumbents and something called "Watson Foundation," a name extended to make clear it's not yet IBM Watson, the Q&A machine you may have seen recreated at the HR Tech Conference in October or demonstrated on "Jeopardy."

I heard various points of view about Watson Foundation, which seems so futuristic but includes off-the-shelf products such as SPSS and Cognos as part of its technologies. Although everyone said some piece of it would be in the first release and later embedded in the Talent Suite, former Kenexa CEO Rudy Karsan said discussions have just begun about what that should be and opined it might be the equivalent of an HR help desk.

Alistair Rennie, the former GM of Smart Workforce and now of Business Analytics, made clear the functionality of Watson Fundamental would be increased through the end of the year and eventually include natural language recognition and data integration.

Eric Bokelberg, the former Watson product manager who is now running the Talent Suite, said Watson Foundation is intended to be a Big Data analytics and integration platform, combining many forms of data. He said a big first customer, not yet signed, is very interested in it for HR.

Gee, did you think Eric and IBM put on that big show at HR Tech just to look cool?

Just listing the products is unfair because it doesn't convey the depth of strategic thinking IBM and Kenexa have put into the new suite, the new ways Kenexa will apply its well-established behavioral science capabilities and all the ways the nearly dozen social technologies now known as "IBM Connections" might be used to enhance it.

But how the pieces are being put together is most interesting to me in light of recent discussions on the HR Tech LinkedIn group and Workday's video webinar Predict & Prepare about how so many methods are now being used for application "integration;" does it have any meaning at all anymore?

The most loyal and fanatic readers may remember my column of six years ago called A Cynic's Guide to the Six Steps of Application Integration. It was all about the then-nascent talent-management suite, which many vendors were buying by the piece, so it still applies here, but technology advances have made some of its six (well, cynical) steps just plain wrong.

It's been an open secret that Kenexa was not wildly successful getting customers to move to its new integration platform called 2X. Only about 100 BrassRing and onboarding customers made the switch, and no performance customers.

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So Kevin Cavanaugh, chief engineer for Smarter Workforce, almost had a clean slate. Here's what he said about some of the methods he used to integrate the pieces of the IBM Kenexa Talent Suite.

"Kenexa had no single sign-on. Now BrassRing has it, and it can be authenticated at the suite level.

"With portal technology we can call a portlet that draws data from everywhere. In the first release there will be a few of them. Later we intend to build useful ones. I call this 'on-the-glass integration', which doesn't touch the underlying databases at all.

"We are just starting our data warehouse dump into Watson Foundation, which will not be in the first release. We can also write a portlet for reporting, and Watson technology will allow us to do natural-language queries."

Funny "portal integration" used to be a way to scam customers by having all the apps represented on one page, but when you clicked on one it acted completely differently than the others. Now it will facilitate some real data integration.

Finally, how to connect the suite to an HRMS. IBM seems to think that's a slam dunk, even though the Kenexa pieces have only been bolted on as point solutions, not as a suite. IBM bought a data mapping and integration technology called Cast Iron that seems to be doing well. And remember, IBM has a huge product-implementation business.

As for migrating current Kenexa users, that's "not been thought through yet," according to Rob Ingram, director of product management. IBM is still looking for early adopters and may have found some at the conference.

Welcome to the fight, IBM.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 17th Annual HR Technology ® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 8-10, 2014.  You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show ®. He can be reached at

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