It’s undeniable that the global pandemic outbreak has put the spotlight on the HR function, across organizations, expecting it to lead from the front, by providing solutions for a dynamically shifting workplace. Truisms such as this, however, need to be unpacked in terms of tangible problem-and-solution scenarios, to make any real difference on the ground. A case in point, where cutting-edge technologies combine with HR work practices – to save time, enhance data accuracy, improve employee experience, and sharpen the focus of executive decision-making – is the emergent domain known as “Conversational AI for HR”.

First, let’s demystify this term. In a pre-pandemic, work-from-office paradigm, employees would typically walk over to the desk of their HR representative or make a call, to address their queries. On the face of it, such questions span a wide range: from compensation and benefits, to learning & development, policies and SOPs, compliance checks, and leave management, besides concerns and grievances. A closer scrutiny shows that a vast majority of questions and concerns fall into a predictable, finite set of transactions. And this in turn exposes a major lacuna of a traditional HR set-up.

In a typical non-automated scenario, employee interactions occur through a combination of in-person conversations, emails and phone calls. Consequently, HR representatives expend much of their productive hours handling such queries. The manual process and quantum of requests increase the pressure on the executives, and likelihood of errors. The tedious, repetitive nature of the work, has an adverse impact on motivation, focus and productivity, leaving little time for innovation and creative initiatives. This is where advances in automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can make a difference.

Conversational AI for HR enables organizations to deploy digital HR assistants – intelligent bots that handle a wide range of queries real-time, accurately, and cost-effectively. These bots can be set up to offer a walk-through of common processes around benefits, provide updates around employee policies and enterprise-level decisions, and so forth. The HR department can thus automate high-frequency employee interactions, resulting in reduced costs and self-service options that are online, user-friendly, and can be accessed from the comfort of one’s home, at a time and even through a device of one’s own choosing. The process can be designed so that users access the information through digital channels they’re already comfortable with, e.g. Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, as a chatbot, or even Alexa and Google Assistant. Advances in AI continue to make man-machine conversations flexible, friendly, outcome-based and pleasant – a far cry from the straightjacketed chatbots that frustrated us in earlier years.

The benefits of deploying conversational AI for HR to the various stakeholders, are both tangible and immediate.

Talent Base: The emergent workplace is characterized by a rising proportion of millennials and Gen Z professionals in the workforce. They’re highly tech-savvy, tend to have shorter attention spans, demand quick, easy interactions, with immediate addressal of issues, and prefer digital self-service, to in-person interactions that involve waiting, repetition and manual processing. Think of a typical question, such as: “How much leave can I roll over to next year?” In an AI paradigm, the employee feeds the question into a chatbot, or texts it to an HR persona or simply speaks into the HR portal via a microphone on his device. The system authenticates and interprets the request, fetches the necessary data and displays the answer instantaneously. The user’s experience is certainly better than a scenario where he expends significant time navigating applications or worse must wait for his turn at the HR representative’s desk.

CXO Suite: The wealth of insights that top executives can obtain, from HR conversations with employees, is often undervalued. This is because in a traditional set-up, HR isn’t equipped to farm the necessary data accurately and comprehensively and present it in a user-friendly format. Think of some questions that go unanswered. What items of compliance are employees struggling with, the most? What’re been the top 3 concerns of female employees, this year? What’s the biggest grievance of employees, across the board? What initiative or policy are employees most satisfied with? In an automated, AI-driven system, all relevant data reside in the system, and can be displayed immediately, populating pre-designed report templates. And CXOs can be coached on how to generate such reports on their own, without having to rely on support personnel.

HR Function: Most conventional discussions of automation hinge on the notion, ‘machines will replace humans’. Such an argument belies the efficiencies that automation can deliver. Conversational AI does not imply the retrenchment of HR professionals. Rather, it frees them up from tasks that are onerous, repetitive and prone to manual error. What initiatives can HR take, for better employee engagement, and making a beneficial impact on communities? What are the most effective policies in a hybrid mode of working? What are the pitfalls of an extended WFH model, and how can they be addressed? These now emerge as the questions for HR to focus on, instead of routine queries from employees. HR can thus transform its own value proposition within an organization: from being a somewhat ‘back-end’ partner to a catalyst for change.

Conversational AI solutions extend to recruitment, onboarding, leave management, reimbursements, payroll processing and employee analytics. In the process, they free up the time of HR executives from routine and repetitive queries, accord greater data security and efficiency by automating processes, and provide deep insights to executive leadership through conversation analysis.

Avik Chanda is the CEO-Founder of NUVAH ELINT LLP, and the author of “From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption”, published by HarperCollins. Gautham Tummala is the Co-Founder of Concerto AI Inc, which aims to make the digital assistant experience more human-like, on messaging platforms, voice assistants and telephony systems.

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