Artificial Intelligence Can Free HR Professionals to Focus on Strategy

HR should brace itself as Siri- and Alexa-like technologies come to work

By Dave Zielinski Jul 21, 2017
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Corporate versions of Siri and Alexa may soon be coming to an HR service center near you.

Industry vendors continue to refine and introduce these conversational agents, which use natural language processing to field and answer questions from employees on a range of human resource topics.

Rather than having to navigate websites, send e-mails or make phone calls—and often wait for responses—employees can use these artificial intelligence (AI) tools to get quick, voice- or text-delivered answers to questions about paid time off, benefits eligibility, retirement savings, work schedules, and even career planning or performance coaching. For organizations, these "virtual agents" can reduce labor costs, enhance customer service and free up HR staff for strategic initiatives.

These applications are part of the growing AI movement in HR. More than half of HR managers (55 percent) believe AI will become a regular part of their function in the next five years, according to a recent CareerBuilder study; 13 percent are already seeing evidence of it. The study was conducted by Harris Poll for CareerBuilder and includes responses from 231 HR managers across industries and company sizes. HR managers in the survey also said they waste an average of 14 hours a week doing tasks that could be automated through AI or other tools.

Supporting Human Agents

It's little surprise that IBM is at the vanguard of the conversational HR movement. IBM's "virtual agent for HR" uses cognitive technology to extend the expertise of employees in HR service centers, said Bob Schultz, general manager of IBM Talent Management Solutions in San Francisco. By understanding natural language, the virtual agent allows HR client services to serve employees better while reducing labor costs, Schultz said.

'Employees no longer have to navigate websites to find answers to their HR-related questions; they can simply ask the virtual agent a question and get a rapid response.'

In more complex situations where human intervention is required, the cognitive technology can assist service center representatives, Schultz said. "The virtual agent might tell the rep, 'The last time Bob called, this is what he asked about, and here's where we stand in his case,' " Schultz said. "The virtual agent would then make recommendations to the human agent, not as part of a script but in a dynamic way, with an ability to interpret the sentiment and tone of employees with questions."

SAP SuccessFactors also joined the conversational HR game earlier this year with its Slack for Enterprise chatbot that allows users to ask questions and receive answers to HR-related issues without using a web browser. Chatbots are interactive software programs within messaging applications that use AI to mimic human conversations.

One way that SuccessFactors' bot works is during interactions that employees and managers have on a performance management platform. As the two are having performance-related conversations, the manager might suggest an activity to the employee. The bot would take over and ask for needed input like activity name, status and which goal the activity should be assigned to; the manager can later add feedback to the activity.

The bot automates HR transactions and closes communication gaps between employees and managers, SuccessFactors states in a blog on its website.

ADP's Artificial Intelligence Initiative

Full-service HR vendor ADP also is developing a virtual assistant for HR built on natural language processing, said Stuart Sackman, ADP's corporate vice president of multinational solutions. "The next generation of HCM [human capital management] solutions is moving from graphical user interfaces to conversational user interfaces," he said. "Instead of employees having to navigate online text menus and fill out forms, many functions will be voice-generated by AI."

The ADP virtual agent will be powered by AI that learns employees' patterns of behavior and predicts what information or experiences will make them more productive, efficient and engaged, Sackman said.

Here are three examples of how ADP's applications will work:

Personalized virtual coaching. The AI delivers personalized coaching to managers through a product called Compass that uses manager responses to questionnaires and feedback from direct reports or peers to make suggestions. "This is bite-sized coaching related to how to become a better manager, how to interface more effectively with a team and more, based on responses that we run through our AI engine," Sackman said. The tool is designed to change behavior through "soft nudges" [think notifications] delivered to mobile devices or to the desktop.

Retention of pivotal talent. The AI can help predict and prevent the loss of top performers. For example, an executive traveling to Atlanta might receive a voice message from the ADP system alerting her to a high-potential employee in that city who's considered a flight risk. That risk assessment is made by ADP's "big data" analytics.

"To show how the system works, we go back in time and take all of the employees who worked for our clients seven years ago and run our predictive analytics against that database," Sackman said. "We follow those employees forward to see if they stay or leave."

The AI crawls through relevant internal systems and collects data about the employee who may consider leaving, then sends a briefing document summarizing that information to the executive traveling to the employee's city. "That allows the executive to have a meaningful conversation about what may be going on with the employee and increase the odds of re-engaging and ultimately retaining [him or her]," Sackman said.

Retirement savings. Employees might receive an automated message on their birthdays asking if they've considered saving more for retirement. "Then we would run an AI model for them showing that if they increase their savings by even one or two percent, for example, here's how much more their retirement savings will be, in addition to projecting what their health care costs will likely be," Sackman said. "It's been a well-received feature so far."

AI and Employee Benefits

A type of AI has also made inroads in the employee benefits arena in the form of "robo-advisors" that automate investment portfolio processes and advise employees on 401(k)s and retirement planning. Robo-advisors like Betterment, Wealthfront or Charles Schwab's Intelligent Portfolios use computer algorithms to provide plans and advice on financial investing, promising good returns at lower costs than human advisors.

In addition, applications like Alex from Jellyvision use AI elements to guide employees through topics like benefits enrollment, medical insurance plans, retirement savings and financial wellness. Alex uses interactive decision-support tools featuring simple language, graphics and animations in the form of conversations designed to help employees make improved benefits decisions.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.


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