HR Technology

CHATBOTS: the next frontier for HR software

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PHOTO CREDIT: brahim elmokaouim, FLICKR

You’ll be forgiven for thinking  Chatbots are new  technology, they’ve been around since the 1960’s in fact, but have been given a new lease of life with the recent developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The word itself gives some hints as to what it does. “Chat” implies a form of informal communication and “bot” indicates the presence of robotics. In reality they are small software applications that automate tasks on your behalf over the internet and interact with you in a human-like way. Many of these tasks tend to be basic, repetitive and gimmicky , however we are seeing the emergence of  sophisticated business chatbots that learn and adjust their behaviour and response.

The way you interact with these bots is casual and in natural language.

Most of the major tech houses like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple are actively developing these bots, and you’ve probably used some of them such as Siri (iPhone), or Cortana (Microsoft), Alexa (Amazon Echo) and a host of text based chatbots now found in tools like Skype and Slack. (On a side note let’s hope soon-to-be parents don’t start naming their babies with similar names – can you imagine the chaos in the home and future workplaces).

IMPACTS FOR HR TECHNOLOGY

The HR environment is a perfect breeding ground for chatbots. Many of the transactions and data requests performed by managers and employees are simple. A well-developed chatbot could remove the need to access the HR solution directly, replaced with a simple voice request or a text message or email to carry out the task on behalf of the employee. It could be quicker than logging into the ESS/MSS app and broaden the means of interacting with the HR system. Here are a few examples:

  • VOICE: “Hey Siri, what is my leave balance”
  • VOICE: “Hey Alexa, let my boss know I’m feeling unwell” 
  • VOICE: “Hey Bob, mail me a list of team members due to attend safety training”
  • TEXT: Send my Feb py advice
  • MAIL: Approve John’s training expenses for May

The above are examples of simple requests that would typically interrogate the HR system as if it were the real user. Things like security profiles and data access would be applied to the bot in the same fashion as the human user. In all likelihood these simple request would include logical follow-up questions based on the in-built artificial intelligence:

  • “You have 11.3 days of annual leave. You haven’t had any time off for 7 months, do you want to put in a request?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear you are not well…as it’s a Monday please ensure you obtain a doctors certificate”
  • “I’ve mailed you a list of team members attending safety training. Check in with Peter Smith, his record shows he doesn’t arrive 36% of the time”

RAMCO the Indian based Enterprise Software Vendor is providing their HR clients with e-mail communication to its HR system, citing speed as a primary motivator. They have a number of other tools in their other non-HR modules of similar ilk. Other vendors like ADP are building bots that automate HR tasks such as sending a job to a prospective hire and alerting employees to use up their annual leave.

The other likelihood is that Chatbots will be developed outside of the vendor products. There are a number of specialist platforms such as Kore who provide tools for bot self-development and others who provide existing libraries to commonly used systems.

Chatbots are unlikely to replace the need for slick end-user interfaces in the short term, but they are potential big cost savers from a vendor development perspective as well as for software licencing.

As chatbots become more proficient and operate like real assistants or concierge services, people will want to use them, creating a demand. Hopefully vendors and developers have their ears to the ground.

 

 

Has Technology Weakened HR?

Picture: 周小逸 Ian : Flickr
12 May 2016

This seems somewhat of an odd statement to make in todays technology obsessed world – surely HR technology has allowed People practitioners to greatly improve efficiency by reducing manual and paper-based activities, improving data access & reporting, reducing errors, helping employees make better decisions and ensuring compliance to policy and procedure.

This is of course true at a transaction level, but herein lies the problem. The way vendors have generally designed HR technology is not an accurate reflection of how professional HR and Talent managers think, nor does it signal an understanding of the complexities in Professional HR Management. In fact the slicing-up of HR into different software modules along ‘logic’ and ‘transaction’ lines of thinking has created and perpetuates the view that HR is simply a set of somewhat loosely interrelated basic transactions.

And surely that can’t be too difficult to get right! ah, yeah!  But yet time and time again we see HR functions under attack for poor performance and low value contribution. With these perceptions abound, no wonder there is doubt among some C-levels that HR is needed.

If only HR Management was so simple and logical. But it isn’t. There are a significant amount of people dimensions used by HR professionals which are not logically inclined or lend themselves to be developed into a ‘transaction’, let alone a software module. Think about important people management facets such as ‘Ethics’ , ‘Style’, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Values’ – these are key HR influences in achieving particular strategic business outcomes, and they are fundamentally intertwined into such things as learning, performance, development, communication and knowledge sharing. But they are ‘non-existing pieces’ in the HR software puzzle.

This is not a jibe at HR Software vendors. In fact some vendors clearly understand the impact of these gaps and are working hard to address them. Particularly those vendors who are focused on superior technical integration between modules.

They realize that while they have in many cases reduced HR to modular transactions to make it easy for end users, they also understand that the all-important ‘HR complexity value factor’ is partly resolved when effective and seamless integration across these modules occurs. The combination of modular interaction offers some support in achieving strategic HR objectives. Keep going vendors, there is lots more to do in this space!

HR Technology has inadvertently contributed to a weakening of professional HR outputs, but the finger should however point directly at the HR leader who has allowed the function to be reduced to a set of modules and transactions.

It’s an easy way out for poor performing HR leaders, and provides an opportunity to shift the blame onto technology. Professional HR management is not an easy job, in fact it is highly complex, with over 40 major elements or activities being continuously juggled to produce desired business outputs. Those that are successful also understand how HR technology should be used and positioned to enable people to achieve great things.

Do you have an opinion on this?

Your future HR System will “Persuade” you

It isn’t a new idea that computers, mobile phones, websites and wearable technologies can be built in ways which influence your behaviour or causes you to think in a new way over time. While one could argue that this is akin to brainwashing, when used appropriately it can be very beneficial to end users as well as system owners. Just think how your smart-phone or Fitbit health band has altered your behaviour without you realizing it.

The idea of “persuasive computing” was first coined around 1990 by Standford University researcher Dr BJ Fogg. Much of his current work centres on teaching technology developers the psychology of behavioural change, and how to facilitate behaviour change via their technologies. Hello, isn’t this what HR people are supposed to be good at given that Psychology is the foundation of most HR professionals education? It begs the question as to why HR software vendors have not built their solutions with more “persuasive computing” thinking which could motivate end users to behave in a way that would benefit themself, HR and the organization.

Most HRIS vendors have developed visual dashboards, alerts and many use gamification techniques to encourage end users to do things, but in my view these are largely fear based design principles rather than motivational ones. These vendors are wedded to the “principle of standardization” ~ that a system process should be applied consistently to all users irrespective of their current habits, behaviours or motivation level. We need HR software that takes an individual’s current state as a base-line and uniquely “shapes” the HR software to suit that user. In the process of “shaping”, the end user is more likely to react in a particular way, do things suitable to their current state of behaviour & motivation level all while providing HR with a platform to influencing future behaviour of that individual.

BJ Fogg makes a great point that we cannot do complex things when our motivation level is low. Likewise we have windows of opportunity to do hard and complex things when our motivation level is high. SaaS HR tools in particular gather a lot of important Meta data that could quite easily be used to measure a users’ current state of motivation or other states of mind. When a users motivation is low for example, the HR system should “reshape” to encourage easy activities, while taking advantage of times when the end user has high motivation to get more difficult and perhaps more things done, while at the same time facilitating behaviour change so that these hard tasks become easy over time and can be done when motivation is at a lower level.

As HR people, our goal must be to think outside our rigid and standardisation boxes. To much of what HR achieves in our organizations are “feats of compliance” rather than value adding benefits. This is because we are standardisation-centric rather than employee centric. I would much rather a line manager do HR tasks that he or she is motivated to do, which add real business value and develop correct habits which facilitate personal growth in effective people management than forcing a person to comply to something because “HR says so!” – technology can help us achieve this.

There’s a greater role for HR software than simple process and transactional efficiency. For a tool that has so many components linked to people behaviour, we need vendors who understand persuasion and behaviour change though technology to come to the party.

HOW INTELLIGENT IS YOUR HR SYSTEM?

There are three key elements in determining how intelligent your HR system is
Original article written for Inside HR Magazine April 2015

The analytic functionality of modern HR software is meaningless without the right interest, creativity and skill of HR leaders.

You wouldn’t be wrong if the first words that sprung to mind as you read the title were “analytics” or “big data”, as they represent two of the three main components that drive HR system intelligence. Big data is really just a term that represents the massive amounts of information we create and collect in a myriad of digital systems such as email, collaboration tools, HR transactional, talent and payroll systems as well as our online social media activity using tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and others.

Nobody really knows exactly how much data we collectively create. Whatever the volume or source, it’s really irrelevant, save to say that every individual in the workplace is creating a significant amount of data on a daily basis that could be extremely useful and valuable in the delivery of business- and people-related goals.

The data, however, is largely meaningless unless we firstly recognise what it is, know what value it will offer our organisations, and are able to apply analytical robustness in a creative and strategic manner to the raw data. Many will be familiar with the movie Moneyball, which highlights the power of using data and analytics to make business decisions regarding sportsmen. It’s now pretty common for top sports teams to measure a specific series of data points for each of their team members. They do this to ensure they invest in the right players from a hiring perspective, through to performance optimisation, risk (injury) management and termination.

system intelligence

This brings me to the third component which drives HR system intelligence – the human factor. While modern HR systems can be set up to provide historic, trending and predictive answers in a quick and consistent way, it takes people to ask the right questions, apply rigorous and causal measurement standards and to interpret the results correctly. System intelligence is far more than a set of logical technology sequences with a sexy user interface; it is a reflection of how the human aspect is applied to data interrogation.

What Moneyball also underscores is the need for absolute focus, commitment and trust in the analysed data. The real-life success of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, which the movie is based around, would not have happened if the right person, who loved and understood the data, was not part of the equation. This is important for HR functional and technology leaders to understand – HR analytics is not an activity you can simply add into your HR generalist’s job description. It’s a contributing factor to why HR departments have not been overly successful with their foray into the world of data analytics.

It’s good to see many HR system vendors actively embracing analytics directly in their HR software. Some provide fairly basic historic and trend analysis through online graphical reporting. Others are providing instant or embedded analytics that display results in a dashboard or by simply hovering your mouse pointer over an icon. More recently, we’re seeing diverse data and complex analysis engines being integrated into HR systems. These offer statistically valid predictions related to employee risk such as likelihood of resignation, best career move and ways to improve engagement.

The provision of complex analytic functionality by HR vendors is important; however, the HR system will not appear intelligent without the right human interest, creativity and skill. As tough as this may sound, your HR system’s perceived intelligence is a reflection of your HR leaderships’ views of data and analytics rather than the system-specific functionality. As we edge towards a completely digital work environment, HR leaders must address their role in future decision making through data intelligence.

HR system intelligence & HR implications

  • HR system intelligence relates primarily to its capacity to collect, analyse and represent data in a predictive manner such that it contributes to business and people decision making.
  • Just as sports teams have realised the value of people analytics in winning, HR must accept that there is significant business value to be gained by properly analysing HR and related data.
  • HR vendors will provide standard analytics in their solutions. These are useful, but should not be confused with the analytics that are unique to your business and HR drivers.
  • Data analytics is a specialist role that requires specific skill, a passion for finding answers in complex data and the ability to convey strategic messages from the results.
  • There is a direct correlation between your HR system intelligence and the level of interest in data and analytics from your HR leadership.

Rob Scott is global lead: HR strategy & innovation for Presence of IT, a leading consultancy in HR, talent, payroll and workforce management solutions.

Is your HR Technology adding value?

Most of the time, if you ask any HR leader to explain how HR technology is contributing to the achievement of business goals you get a somewhat perplexed expression, supported by an eloquent explanation which suggests it’s being conveniently ignored because it’s too difficult or not practical. Alternatively they reference the vendors marketing rhetoric which promise share-price improvements that would get Warren Buffett excited!

But HR is changing

It’s moving out of the administrative and transactional mould that has defined it for decades, and whilst the transition is often very slow and painful to watch, there are many organisations whose executives are maturing in their understanding of the unique value that HR functions can offer, and their direct contribution to business goals and strategy achievement. HR professionals can’t hide behind the mystique of psychology anymore; they need to show direct linkage from what they do and the outcomes it creates, including the role of HR Technology.

HR leaders are far more business savvy too, they will rattle off their business goals, they are succinct in articulating the meaning of value for their organisations, they understand cost, growth, quality and risk drivers, and they are familiar with industry and global issues, opportunities and constraints.  So what’s the problem – why are so many HR leaders resistant to show how the performance of HR Technology has or could advance the business objectives and strategies?

Addressing the problem

Some of the answer to this question may lie in previous bad experiences with “template” measurement frameworks such as the Balanced Scorecard. These tools are often introduced as off-the-shelf “best practice” which generally lead to disappointing outcomes. It’s the one reason that I loathe HRM software vendors pushing a “best practice” mantra. HR leaders wrongly believe the hard work related to measuring their HR Tech value contribution has been done for them. It can never be true – your objectives, environment and how you want to achieve your business outcomes using HR Technology are absolutely unique. You need to do the hard, detailed work yourself.

Another reason is simply lack of know-how and practice. Most HR professionals have a social science background which engenders greater qualitative rather than quantitative focus. That’s not an excuse of course, learning how to build a causal-effect model which shows where HR Technology is leveraged, is not difficult~ it just takes some practice and adherence to some basic principles such as:

  • Making sure your selected measures are strategic and aligned to company goals
  • Not making assumptions about the cause-effect relationships. You need to test it and prove its validity
  • Setting realistic targets, not everything needs to be 100%
  • Having clear ownership of the measure. Someone who is passionate about achieving a business outcome, and is constantly tweaking the framework
  • Being practical – don’t overcook the requirements or the data needed
  • Telling your story. Contextualize the results and explain what it means in business terms

By way of a simplified graphical example, I recently had the opportunity to help a client think through a cause-effect model for “Innovation” – one of their strategic business objectives. The HR director wanted to explain how their HR technology was directly contributing and supporting this objective. When we finished the model, it became very easy to explain how this would be achieved. A key learning for the client was to link the HR Technology to “drivers” rather than the performance areas.

I’ll point out again that proving the “cause-effect” (performance areas in graphic below) is critical to establishing credibility. For example, my client had to validate that “Empathy for client’s needs” really did cause “Enthusiasm & Engagement” in their environment. Once that was established the drivers for performance were identified and agreed, and HR was able to determine which HR Technology was required and how it would be used to deliver measurable outcomes.

exampleOf course there is a lot more work and involvement from other business functions behind this simple graphic, but hopefully it’s apparent that with some careful thought and focus, the real value of HR Technology can be measured and explained. Your next business case for HR Technology funding should be much easier to achieve if you have this in place!

So HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics – get over it!

photo credit: All rights reserved by shellydelight – Flikr

updated March 2016

It started as a jovial discussion with some office colleagues about the “Meaning of Life” – that yet unanswered question which has plagued human kind since the beginning of our existence. Naturally we considered all unconventional opinions such as that of Monty Python,

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything = 42”

and to the more serious, such as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl’s resolve to  “Having a sense of purpose that keeps your eyes on meaningful goals ahead” and general theological views which purport “To love and serve your god, and love and serve others”

But it didn’t take long before the flavour of the conversation became focussed on People…. more so the people in the workforce. We found ourselves asking a singular and fundamental question:

“WHY DOES HR EXIST?”

It’s a profound question that may have been asked before, but probably not simply answered.

In trying to answer the question our natural HR instincts lead us to describe HR activities – you know, the tons of things HR gets involved with in-between “Hiring & Firing” such as recruitment, talent development, learning, administration, workforce planning, comp & benefits, strategy etc. We raised our discussion to a “People Impact” and “Value through people” view which got us a little closer, but we were still unable to reach consensus on the proverbial question.

I reached out to my good mate Lyle Cooper, who likes to ponder difficult HR questions. He reminded me that “No person has been able to absolutely define and therefore control human behaviour”- he makes it a life-rule to run as fast as he can from anyone who claims to have a definitive answer about people, culture, life, afterlife etc.

Lyle’s point really goes to the heart of social (or human) sciences, the basis for much of what HR does, in that they are not perfect sciences. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to create the perfect performance management environment, a perfect engagement model or the ultimate user experience.

And it was this point that reminded me of the ongoing debate among mathematicians about the answer to the mathematical statement 00 (zero raised to the power of zero). The arguments as to whether the answer is 1(one), 0(zero) or indeterminate are excruciatingly painful to read and understand (especially if you are not a mathematician like me).

But while there are extreme views, most mathematicians agree  that  00 = 1 is preferable, as it is more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians.

“The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice”, is resoundingly similar to the “lack-of-evidence” and “soft & fluffy” disputes HR finds itself embroiled in.

So, while not perfect in any way, my response to the question “WHY DOES HR EXIST?” is “00. It fits perfectly with mathematician’s dilemma.   Business functions and HR professionals are unlikely to ever agree on a common reason for HR’s existence, but by accepting 00  = 1, HR professionals are able to move forward. HR will make validity concessions, builds faulty frameworks, creates imperfect processes and design software to support an imperfect business environment – and that’s okay!

One day we may find that much of what HR is doing is wrong, in the same way many mathematical assumptions may be questioned if and when someone conclusively proves what the answer to 00 is. But until it’s proved otherwise, let HR execute its stuff…its time to stop focusing on the equation!

HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics (and therefor finance, procurement and operations management) – the next time someone challenges  your HR framework, assumptions or software choices, be sure to remind them that the meaning of HR = 00.

Rob Scott is the Global Lead: HR Strategy and Innovation for Presence of IT, A global HR,Talent, Payroll and WFM consultancy.

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