In this guest column, Adam Rogers, chief technology officer of Ultimate Software, looks at how artificial intelligence is poised to dramatically transform the workplace for managers.
Artificial intelligence technology has been around for decades, but its capabilities, funding and overall interest have skyrocketed in recent years. Machine learning functionalities are disrupting nearly every industry and our everyday lives, from self-driving cars to Facebook’s facial recognition. According to CB Insights, funding for AI startups reached $5 billion in 2016. Further disruption is almost guaranteed as the acceleration of AI technology continues.
This rapid progression is driven by advanced machine learning—systems that continuously consume and apply knowledge to improve accuracy and analysis. AI has already proved its potential for expediency and efficiency, completely redefining the way we live, work and relate to one another. The prospect of AI actually improving human interaction, especially within the business environment, is particularly intriguing.
Human innovation paired with technological development is a powerful force. I’ve had a front-row seat to what that can accomplish in the HCM space, where technology has evolved from simply performing basic HR processes to predicting future outcomes and fundamentally restructuring how employers manage their people. Technologies powered by machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and distributed data-collection interfaces are poised to completely transform the workplace for managers.
Big Data Fosters Understanding
Running a business requires a substantial amount of data.
The term “big data” broadly refers to the staggering volume of information available at any given time. Today’s technology can digest these data mines with superhuman capacity and speed, applying advanced mathematical algorithms to find patterns, trends and outliers. This insight can transform how managers approach everything from turnover to overtime, and provides an opportunity for leaders to better understand their teams and how to strengthen them.
Automation plays an important role in the data consumption process and is responsible for unparalleled advancements in convenience and productivity. Complex administrative functions have often plagued organizations, particularly in HR, and these solutions alleviate the potential for human error while dramatically increasing completion speed.
This has also laid the groundwork for the game-changing power of prediction. Today’s HCM solutions leverage big data to forecast everything from performance success to flight risk, and these self-taught systems are accurate, extremely adaptive and constantly learning. Rather than simply reporting on past trends, they predict future ones, empowering leaders to drive continuous improvement within their organizations.
Consider retention, for example. Turnover is a priority for today’s leaders, as it can contribute to increased business errors, negative cultural impact and cost up to twice an employee’s annual salary in hiring and training costs, according to Bersin by Deloitte’s Josh Bersin. By automatically processing and analyzing a wealth of HCM data, predictive AI tools can identify the employees most at risk of leaving and alert their managers to act before it’s too late.
This brings us to the next frontier for disruption: prescriptive analytics. Once again building on past innovations, prescriptive systems pull information from predictive functions to suggest specific, personalized actions at key decision points. These AI-based recommendations can make managers better leaders, applying unbiased data to difficult decisions.
The prescriptive functions can inform not only who to talk to and why but how based on what’s worked well in similar situations. Using the above example, a manager may be encouraged to take a high-risk employee to lunch, thank them for their continued contributions and initiate a conversation about their career goals and aspirations. The additional support helps leaders coach and engage their people, but the process also relies on the innate human traits of intuition, empathy and kindness. It’s symbiotic, people-first AI.
Leveraging The Voice Of The Employee
According to a 2016 study conducted by the Center for Generational Kinetics and commissioned by Ultimate Software, managers can improve employee retention by 75% if they simply listen and address employee concerns. This seems basic, but it’s actually quite difficult to scale listening to the voice of the employee. Organizations have traditionally relied on annual performance reviews to accomplish this goal, but once-a-year discussions don’t always suffice.
Employee satisfaction surveys are another alternative, but poorly designed surveys won’t deliver effective results. The best surveys offer a mix of qualitative and quantitative prompts, but these take significant manpower to analyze.
Recent AI developments are solving this dilemma and improving employee-manager relations in the process.
Speaking Our Language
Despite the advancements AI has made in learning and prediction, users are often frustrated by its failure to understand the true meaning of words. Google Translate can instantly convert text from one language to another, and even basic web-based chatbots can provide reasonable responses to simple queries. But until recently, these systems relied on literal translations and interpretations. Human language is complicated, brimming with context and subtleties, making it challenging for machines to decipher.
Enter natural language processing. This technology has improved quickly, and NLP solutions are learning to think and speak like humans. It’s the difference between a French 101 student and a native Parisian—the AI is actually speaking our language, not translating it. Machines can now discern emotion and recognize differences between sadness, anger and even sarcasm. It’s a breakthrough with incredible implications.
There are many potential opportunities to leverage NLP in the workplace, such as advanced customer service bots or email summarization software, but employee surveys are an obvious start. By applying NLP and machine learning algorithms to open-ended, text-based surveys, leaders receive feedback on what their employees are saying as well as how they’re actually feeling. Managers can keep a pulse on their team’s health and use these metrics to arrange one-on-one conversations, evaluate opportunities to increase satisfaction and drive organizational change.
Improving Human Connection
Truly understanding how people are doing their jobs, what they care about and what inspires them can improve nearly every aspect of the employee experience. Developments in automation, analytics and NLP are making these insights possible and fostering an authentic connection and understanding between managers and their employees.
In this way, AI has accomplished perhaps the last thing we expected: It’s making managing more human.
Adam Rogers is chief technology officer of Ultimate Software, a leading cloud provider of HCM solutions. Based in Weston, Fla., Ultimate Software is a sponsor of the HCM Technology Report.
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