Bringing together women in AI

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Marta Martínez
General Manager Europe, Middle East & Africa at IBM

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AI & the employee experience – IBM in conversation with KBC

As part of her commitment to creating a more diverse and inclusive technology landscape, Marta Martínez, General Manager, IBM Europe, Middle East and Africa, is having a series of conversations with women who are pioneering AI in their businesses and were recently recognized as part of IBM’s Women in AI program. In this first edition, Anette Böhm, Chief Human Resources Officer at KBC Banking and Insurance, talks about how she used AI to transform the KBC employee experience at a time of profound change. The insightful chat was hosted by Zoe Kleinman, Senior Technology Reporter at the BBC. Below is a summary of the topics covered.


Using AI to leave no one behind

A major transition for any organization involves uncertainties and certainties. Two of the latter are: 1) a number of functions are no longer useful and 2) new skills are needed to execute the new strategy. Anette Böhm wanted KBC to tackle this challenge differently to the competition. Instead of letting people go and making new hires, she wanted “to hold on to our employees and give them the opportunity to stay.” KBC’s approach was to invest heavily in building skills, but they soon found that a once-size-fits-all training program didn’t work. “Some people came to me saying ‘this is far too easy!’ and others said ‘this is far too difficult’. That’s why we brought in IBM Watson to help us develop AI-driven personalized training strategies.” The new training program, where content is developed to suit each employee’s level has proved to be a big hit.  This first AI experience was so positive that KBC has gone one step further: finding the right jobs for people by working with IBM Watson to help match people’s skills and desires with the right job opportunities.



Improving the employee experience

KBC’s use of IBM Watson is a great example of how “AI can positively impact the employee experience” according to Marta. HR is an area where AI adds a lot of value. Productivity is improved by AI freeing up time for other activities.  New insights from AI support better decision making. Marta gave some examples: Finnair developed a chatbot for their 6000 employees, answering their HR questions around the clock. Skoda auto manufacturer uses an IBM Watson assistant that accelerates some of their hiring process, benefitting both the candidates and the company.


HR: no longer just human, now human + tech

Twenty years ago, HR had nothing to do with technology” but technology in HR is here to stay “and it’s clearly an opportunity” says Anette. “With the capacity of my HR department I would not have been able to do what I did with the IBM technology. We would only have been able to get in contact with a few people, and now we can get in contact with everybody.” Anette also notes the integration of people and technology: “we no longer have to make a choice between the human side, and the technology side”.


The importance of building trust

Marta acknowledged that people have concerns around AI.  For IBM, it’s important people know that AI will help people but it will not replace humans. It’s also important to be clear and transparent when AI is being used and about how AI decisions are made. Having a technology partner who explains everything really clearly was crucial for Anette: “IBM was really willing to help the company and the HR department understand AI so that we could apply it correctly”. Employee Unions are also giving KBC positive feedback on the use of AI because they see the value of data in making less-subjective HR decisions.


Diversity for AI and AI for Diversity

Currently women represent just 26% of the AI workspace. Anette and Marta agreed that the best opportunity for getting more women in AI is to encourage younger girls to take up STEM subjects before the age where they become labelled as boys subjects. Congratulating Anette on being named a Woman Leader in AI by IBM, Marta said that role models such as Anette are highly influential. Marta cited an example of an IBM initiative in Italy where for the past eight years female volunteers have gone onto high schools to talk about STEM and careers in technology to over 17000 girls. Amongst those girls, application rates to STEM subjects at university increased by up to 40% in some cases. To make a lasting change different parts of society – governments, educational institutions and others – need to invest and help.

But AI is also an opportunity for older, more experienced women. Anette cited the fact that the 300 most senior people in KBC have received AI education and her philosophy is: “we all need to stay open”. It’s not only about technical expertise, according to Marta. It’s already a valuable skill to be able to see opportunities where AI can make a positive change.

“A better gender balance and more diversity creates better results” said Anette, but she stressed this should be across all functions. “We have recently promoted women in our ICT department, and the men tell me that they see the difference. They say we have other conversations. And they even asked now to add even more women!”


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