IBM acknowledges layoffs, still calls Watson Health its 'moon shot'

IBM confirmed it laid off several Watson Health employees just before the Memorial Day holiday, but the workforce changes don't mean IBM is ending its cognitive healthcare solutions arm, the Herald Sun reports.

An IBM spokesperson confirmed the layoffs, but refused to say how many people lost their jobs.

The layoffs only "[affected] a small percentage of our global Watson Health workforce as we move to more technology-intensive offerings, simplified processes and automation to drive speed," the spokesperson told the Herald Sun.

The extent of the restructuring is unclear. Online commenters at TheLayoff.com and Facebook page Watching IBM stated that nearly 50 percent to 70 percent of staff had been affected, adding that Watson Health's Dallas office employs 230 people, but its Cleveland office and its health analytics unit — Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Truven Health Analytics — likely staff more.

IBM has not filed a mass layoff notice in North Carolina — as is required under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act when a layoff affects more than 50 people if they make up a third or more of the staff at a "single site of employment." Additionally, no WARN Act filings have been submitted in Texas or Ohio, two other states reportedly affected by the layoffs, the Herald Sun reports.

IBM's Watson Health division sought to combine artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics to help medical researchers drive discoveries and aid patient care. In 2015, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said Watson is the "moon shot [that] will be the impact we have on healthcare."

The project's popularity took a turn after a Jefferies Financial Group report drew skepticism about Watson's promises, and a rollout failed at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

IBM CFO Jim Kavanaugh said the company took "about a $610 million [job] action" in the first quarter of 2018 to "continue repositioning our business."

Despite the setbacks, IBM is continuing its Watson Health division in a deal with Apollo Hospitals, a private healthcare system in India, where it will implement Watson in 10 facilities for oncology and genomics.

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