AI and HR, the final frontier

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry imagined what things would look like in the twenty-third century. Interstellar travel, people beaming everywhere and a whole host of alien civilisations. These science fiction writers are often cited as the people who shape the future; it is their imagination that drives geeks like me to code, improve and build. Robot vacuum cleaners (Hanna-Barbera, 1962), submarines (Jules Verne, 1870) and the humble automatic door (HG Wells, 1899) were all first seen in books and on television long before they ever entered our lives. 

Although we are not whizzing through the stars yet, one of the subtler technologies from Roddenberry's Star Trek is tantalisingly close to ubiquitous use.   

How many times have you seen a character in Star Trek using a mouse and keyboard? I have never seen Kirk, Scotty or macho Worf clutching, stretching and shaking their wrists while muttering about RSI. 

No, in Star Trek, a computer is not a complicated machine where people must learn to type, click and navigate. It is an omnipresent voice that you communicate with in a natural, human-level way. It is a tap of a button on your clothing or a simple "computer" voice command

For consumers, thanks to Mr Bezos and Amazon, one can almost replace the word "computer" with "Alexa", and hey presto, Roddenberry nailed it. 

For business, rapid advancement in machine learning and natural language processing, is enabling audiences to converse with a company in real-time, 24 hours a day. 

Commonly, and somewhat gimmick-ly, referred to as chatbots, these computer programmes enable people, be it consumers, staff, fans or anyone else, to get information from machines through text and speech. Rather than chat bots, or chatbots, I tend to refer to the technology as 'conversational software', a computer programme you talk to. 

We have already seen the adoption of this technology by a few big brands; some examples include Domino’s Pizza enabling consumers to order a pizza through a Facebook Messenger conversation, H&M helping teens with their fashion choices with a Kik chatbot and Bank of America helping its customers save money with Erica, their AI assistant. 

Yet, unbeknown to most, the speediest adoption of conversational software has been in larger companies making internal communication more efficient. 

Consider the HR department of a large company. Research tells us the typical HR team spends between 30% to 50% of their time dealing with inbound enquiries from staff. Questions like "how much annual leave do I have left", "what is the maternity policy" and "why has my tax code gone up?".   

All day, HR is copy-pasting responses and directing staff to employee handbooks and web pages from their intranet.   

Rather than picking up the phone or emailing HR, staff are now able to, Roddenberry style, 'ask' a computer. The HR chatbot (conversational software) connects with up-to-date employee handbooks, policy documents, CRMs and anything else it is given access to and answers questions in real time. If the programme is unable to help, or detects something a real person needs to deal with (stress, mental health, bullying in the workplace, or the like), it can forward the staff member to HR, book appointments and arrange a call-back or meeting.

The earliest adopters of this technology have been enterprise and companies with displaced workforces and multiple sites. As can be predicted, companies with overburdened HR teams see the greatest value. A good example is a business we recently worked with; they have just six HR staff looking after more than 6,500 employees. 

The latest research tells us that businesses can save $8bn per year by using chatbots. However, it is not a transactional saving; it also adds value while it is saving. It is a transformative technology. 

The benefit from conversational software in HR is seen on two fronts. 

For employees, the time saving from on demand and instant answers, centralisation and up-to-date information and the ability to ask questions they would not want to ask their manager or HR, such things as signs of stress, bereavement or maternity policies.    

For the business, primary value is based on the Pareto principle, often called the 80/20 rule. Most inbound internal communication comes from a small number of similar enquiries. By automating the response to these questions, it enables HR to do more with less. Giving them the time to perform the human side of the role, meet with the staff who need personal and 'people' help. More time to focus on talent management, recruiting, strategy and looking to the future rather struggling to keep up with today. 

Additional value comes from the conversational data the chatbot gathers, audit and communication trails, performance management and early detection of welfare issues to name but a few. 

The reason why this technology is first being trialled internally comes down to risk vs. reward. 

Businesses often find themselves trying to 'build a boat at sea'. Having to innovate, make changes processes and keep up with technology and competition while having already set sail. The conversational software can help them do this.   

HR is a test-bed for innovation, it is dealing with a more understanding audience, there is less risk to revenue, requires no expensive integration to current systems, and it solves a real business problem. Once adding value, the company uses the HR chatbot as a business case for trial in other areas such customer service and sales. 

Change is disruptive, and this, like all change management issues, requires managing and a coordinated approach. There are benefits and risks in all new technology but what we cannot do is stand in the way or stop it.   

We are in an exciting and, to some extent, unpredictable time. What is clear, however, is that AI is rapidly becoming part of the everyday business experience, a commodity upgrading our computers as ubiquitously as the electricity that powers them. 

Yes, it can be a bit scary, but also genuinely innovative. I would urge companies to embrace it, get involved and plan for how we can make it into an opportunity and not a threat. 

After all, what choice do we have? Roddenberry has spoken. 

Dean Withey, CEO and Founder, ubisend 

Image Credit: Montri Nipitvittaya / Shutterstock