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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.

 

 

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ARE HR PROFESSIONALS AT RISK?

Latest article published in InsideHR

would HR professionals be as enthusiastic about HR technologies if they contained Artificial Intelligence (AI) capability

Are we ready to be pushed down the proverbial pecking order of importance by sophisticated AI technology? asks Rob Scott

Very few HR and talent professionals would refute the value that technology has brought to their operations. HR functions have leveraged these tools to become efficient, effective, collaborative, engaging and more accurate. But would HR professionals be as enthusiastic about HR technologies if they contained Artificial Intelligence (AI) capability that could predict more accurately and make better business decisions than the highly educated, people-focused HR practitioner?

At what point does software that is able to pick the best applicant, predict who is most likely to resign or identify the best mentor for a talented employee, become a legitimate replacement for a highly paid HR practitioner?

Most HR professionals I engage with don’t believe this will transpire, citing the complexities of human behaviour, personal choice and the absence of universal logic in managing people in the workplace. In the short term I agree with them, but not for the same reasons they mention. In fact, when I look at how most HR functions rely on standard processes to manage certain events, I have no doubt that near-future HR technology will do a better job than humans in executing these rule-based processes. Our flawed minds can never achieve the same level of efficiency.

“AI in HR is maturing; we are seeing interesting algorithm designs, predictive analytics and automation solutions coming to market”

This is not to say that our current HR technologies are anywhere close to being artificially intelligent. Right now there is a lot of hype-spinning by software vendors about the predictive prowess of their tools, but in reality these are immature tools. We should, however, be under no illusion that sophisticated AI for HR is heading our way. As it becomes more credible and capable, it will displace employees who are focused on maintaining standardised HR processes and mundane transactional work. There is, however, a far deeper and fundamental reason why I believe AI will, in the short term, find a home as a digital assistant rather than as a replacement for HR professionals. It goes to the heart of a human emotion – fear. Having artificially intelligent machines making sophisticated and important people-based decisions feels threatening and generates a level of anxiety about our status as human beings. We are not ready to lose our “superiority” to machines, no matter how intelligent they become.

As an example, Microsoft recently released a small tool which guessed one’s age based on a picture you uploaded. The results were mostly wrong, however, the tool went viral. Why? The reasons lie in the notion that while the technology is inaccurate, we feel less threatened by it and are able to maintain our dignity and humanness.

This is a powerful lesson and opportunity for HR software developers. Building AI software that is too accurate and human-like is likely to be rejected or underutilised, not because its outcomes are incorrect, but because it pushes human beings down the proverbial pecking order of importance and insinuates that the work they are doing is demeaning and unnecessary.

“Building AI software that is too accurate and human-like is likely to be rejected or underutilised”

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that technology enhancements have been at the heart of mankind’s industrial revolutions and progress. New machines with capabilities that outshine human ability have typically been met with resistance from those affected, at least until new work opportunities borne from the new technology become evident. AI in HR is maturing; we are seeing interesting algorithm designs, predictive analytics and automation solutions coming to market, but future job clarity in a digital and AI age is still blurry. Until then, AI tools for HR will develop into great digital assistants under control of HR professionals. At least for now the role of the HR professional remains in demand. 

5 key takeways for HR 

  • AI is a growing phenomenon in HR. We are increasingly seeing the inclusion of decision algorithms, predictive analytics and automation tools in HR software.
  • Basic AI tools will have the ability to manage standard HR processes with little to no human intervention, ultimately displacing employees from these mundane roles.
  • Complex AI tools which can make human-like decisions are likely to be rejected in HR because of the implied threat to our status.
  • Whilst it seems far-fetched, HR professionals should start thinking about how to “manage” and integrate artificially intelligent machines in the work environment.
  • Digital HR assistants are already with us managing workflows, finding information and managing large amounts of data. We don’t need to fear AI.

Image source: iStock

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 WFM becoming the new HR?

For many years HR practitioners have been fighting among themselves and with their executive management about the value and importance of HR, Talent management and HR technology. It’s often been an ugly and public battle of personal believes and experience rather than factual and evidence based findings. What’s more, HR people have very strong opinions about being the people behavioural experts and find it very displeasing when they are challenged in this area of how to best manage people in an organization.

Coupled with this is the lack of a clear relationship between HR and company profits and value. Certainly most of the operations people I have met, don’t fully understand the value link that HR purports to have, and often are following processes which HR drives (e.g. Performance management, Goal setting and Career planning) from a compliance perspective rather than a clear business value perspective. While I have no doubt that professional HR has got lots of value to offer, in the most, these departments are too keen to adopt the ‘next flavour of the month’, implement someone else’s ‘best practice’ and expect line managers to love their technology solutions that mostly make the HR’s departments life easier, but are often seen as extra work for the operations and line managers.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s not all doom and gloom…..someone has been listening and doing something about it.

Unfortunately it’s not the general HR fraternity, but rather Operations managers and WFM vendors. After years of experiencing the effects of HR’s ongoing battle with itself, Ops managers have decided to ‘just get on with it’ and are enhancing and using WFM people solutions that are linked directly to the P&L account, have the ability to show exactly where money is being spent, can use real-time data to enhance business decisions and in the process, engage with their employees and optimize productivity – just what the executives ordered!. And as business leaders continue to drive out unnecessary cost and increase productivity, the business cases behind these new WFM tools is simple. Quite often they can easily save an organisation a minimum of 1-2% on annual employee costs and can generate a return on investment (ROI) in months.

All this is quietly happening while HR continues to argue among themselves and promise their organisations that {insert your favourite HR fad here} will change the world.

In some cases HR has ownership of WFM tools, but mostly they are not the primary owners, but rather have a secondary role ensuring the accuracy of data flows between HR, Payroll and the WFM solutions. Many in HR may be thinking the core of a WFM solution is nothing different from the Time management functionality in their HR system which provides scheduling and rostering capability. While there are many similarities between HR and WFM solutions, over the last 5 years the complexity around awards and labour agreement interpretation, as well as the need to plan and optimize people, assets, geo-location, customer needs and competitive business strategies, has seen the explosion of specialist functionality in WFM tools that would not easily be replicated in HR solutions, especially newer SaaS based HR software.

And while HR is demanding to be the source of truth for all things people, but never quite getting the alignment with day-to-day business practices right, WFM vendors saw the gap to add functionality into their software that has traditionally been the domain of HR and Talent systems. It’s now pretty common to see WFM software solutions with Employee self-service (ESS) capability, Mobility, Leave & absence management, Competency & skills management, Employee costing & budgeting management, Planned versus actual task management (goal setting) and even Engagement capability which support team or individual recognition (often using gamification), shift swapping based on personal needs and survey capability to highlight how staff are feeling about their assigned rosters and work assignments.

What WFM solutions are achieving in the people management space is nothing short of amazing – HR is envious! The reason it’s so successful is the seamless integration with operations management activities. And it doesn’t stop there. Modern WFM tools are branching out and building links and capability to Planned-maintenance, Sales & forecasting, Contingent labour management and Financial management solutions.

In many respects WFM is winning the people effectiveness battle at the operations level. Some WFM vendors are not stopping their advancement into HR’s space either with a number of HR and Payroll acquisitions by WFM vendors taking place recently. Perhaps it is WFM that will become the new HR, at least at the operating and tactical level, leaving the strategic people activities to the current HR functions. Watch this space.

Thanks to Shane Granger @gmggranger for promting the idea over the week-end

Do Artifacts Have Ethics?

I came across this blog by @FrailestThing and immediately realized the importance of the questions he has raised. They are very thought provoking and challenge your personal and societal views.

L.M. Sacasas

Writing about “technology and the moral dimension,” tech writer and Gigaom founder, Om Malik made the following observation:

“I can safely say that we in tech don’t understand the emotional aspect of our work, just as we don’t understand the moral imperative of what we do. It is not that all players are bad; it is just not part of the thinking process the way, say, ‘minimum viable product’ or ‘growth hacking’ are.”

I’m not sure how many people in the tech industry would concur with Malik’s claim, but it is a remarkably telling admission from at least one well-placed individual. Happily, Malik realizes that “it is time to add an emotional and moral dimension to products.” But what exactly does it mean to add an emotional and moral dimension to products?

Malik’s own ensuing discussion is brief and deals chiefly with using data ethically and producing clear, straightforward…

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Cross Functional Analytics – Unlocking Value

A good blog on the importance of choosing the right source data and understanding what it will achieve for your organisation.

Lyle Cooper - HR Technologist

spoonLike milk and cereal, peanut butter and jam, summer and swimming; sometimes things are better when they are combined. In many cases, the result of a judicious combination can be better than its inherent parts. Even if the components are not clearly related to each other, they can lead to synergies that combine to create something new and in many cases, better.

This is also true in an organisational context where one of the primary reasons for forming a collective, and focussing the energies of many people on a single goal, is precisely that:   Many people can achieve far more than individuals could achieve on their own.  This compounding of value is also true in analytics and reporting.

While great value can be extracted from the careful analysis of function specific data (Finance, Supply Chain, HR), the benefit and insight obtained from the careful combination of data across these functional…

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