by Mark Souter
HR technology is transforming how we work. Tools, programs and processes like enterprise resource planning (ERP), application program interface (API), cloud computing (aka “the cloud”), and many more are huge driving change. One of these technologies, ‘Bots’ (also known as internet bots or web robots) is slowly entering the mainstream.
Bots are applications that perform repetitive automated tasks at a scale that is not humanly possible. Over the past two decades, marketers (and unfortunately spammers) have successfully used bots to reach many individuals simultaneously to accomplish their goals. Because of the advances in artificial intelligence (AI), we’re seeing a positive resurgence of bots. They are now synonymous with chatbots – applications that can understand what you are trying to ask and then respond with the right answer just like a human would. The Holy Grail is for these bots to exhibit behaviour that is virtually that of a human.
Just as they do in customer service, chatbots have immense potential in providing service to employees across all departments including IT, HR, legal, marketing, and finance. With the increasing trend of ‘consumerising’ services across business, to give employees the best experience possible, bots can be an effective tool. Specifically, there are typically three major types of conversations that a chatbot is likely to have to support HR functions:
- Retrieving system of record data such as “How many vacation days do I have left?”
- Answering a question based on knowledge base such as “What is the leave of absence policy in New South Wales?”
- Submitting a transaction such as creating a leave request and getting updates on its approval status.
HR departments today are spending enormous amounts of time answering basic questions and fielding requests from employees. Studies from the likes of McKinsey or the HR Trend Institute put this at 60-70 percent of the time, an enormous proportion that could be spent on more strategic activity.
HR departments have typically addressed these challenges by setting up service delivery models that can deliver service easier and faster for less cost. One of the key elements of these service models is case deflection – the ability for employees to find answers to questions and address any needs themselves without having to go to HR. The primary case deflection approach today is to search for answers in what is typically known as a ‘knowledgebase’.
Chatbots can help HR departments provide a more modern conversational experience and deliver personalised answers and solutions. This can dramatically improve the case deflection rate and reduce the workload of frontline HR support staff, who can then work on more strategic initiatives, but a chatbot needs to understand what you are trying to ask of it. This is accomplished by technologies that are a combination of conversational design, pattern recognition and natural language processing. IBM’s Watson and Google’s API.ai are platforms that provide publicly available conversation services for chatbot applications. Conversation services can be stand-alone or included as a component in HR applications or a combination of the two.
Once a chatbot knows what the user is trying to accomplish, it must execute the conversation, which can be straightforward if you only want to retrieve data. It gets more complicated if you need to submit a transaction. The chatbot now needs to ask for a few pieces of information that go into the transaction, which often vary depending upon the use case.
When answering questions based on a firm’s knowledgebase, chatbots must be part of the application that contains the knowledgebase. These chatbots are complex because they must comb through information and present answers that are relevant and personalised based on the user.
While it is still early days for this type of technology, there is opportunity for designing knowledge bases in an AI-first world.
HR departments must recognise the effort it takes to identify the types of conversations they would like a chatbot to have and then to create those conversations. Most chatbots today have limited AI capabilities. They can either have a conversation on a programmed topic or they will bring in a person if they don’t know how to have a conversation. Next generation chatbots will learn on the go. Every time a person needs to be brought in, a chatbot might ‘listen’ to how the human has a conversation and program itself automatically to have that conversation the next time it is called upon.
Intelligent chatbots have immense potential in shaping the way we interact with systems in the future, and this is just the beginning. HR teams that successfully integrate these technologies now will help drive their organisation’s digital transformation, and deliver the HR experience that their employees want.
By Mark Souter, HR Product and Strategy Lead, ServiceNow