Chatbots have clearly arrived in HR this year, and if you lead the function, you basically have four choices:

  • Sponsor research into merits and readiness (of both the bots and your organization);
  • Dive in with well-designed pilot programs;
  • Dive in hard and learn-as-you-go, just like modern machines are doing in the AI arena;
  • Join the group depicted below.

By piggy-backing on text messages and popular messaging applications, bots will dramatically change people management technology, and more importantly, people management. Beta-stage products have hit the market in the past 12-18 months that allow collaborating with teammates, applying for a job, checking company policies and plans, inquiring and using PTO balances, managers asking “who is on duty?”, etc. There are also super-charged bots that will have more AI capabilities. They are self-learning, can work with unstructured data and complex rules, etc.

As all bots, including HR-related bots, are not created equal, here is a quick way of characterizing bot capabilities:

  • Level 1: No AI capabilities, which means no meaningful personalization in the user experience; designed for answering routine, predictable questions

  • Level 2: AI-infused bots to personalize and elevate the Employee Experience, by understanding the intentions for example

  • Level 3: Level 2 plus the ability to show empathy, optimize human collaboration, and coordinate with or oversee other bots as well

And as far as the compelling reasons for the precipitous increase in the number of customer organizations and HCM-related vendors investing in HR bots capabilities, three of the main ones are:

  • A large percentage of the tasks and duties a typical HR department handles are not only administrative in nature, but they are repetitive, including answering the same types of questions. Deploying bots can allow a major reduction in HR staff costs, and if the competencies are present within the HR function, a shift in focus to delivering more strategic services and value to the organization.

  • Also with respect to using technology, or more specifically HCM systems and tools, humans are often hardwired to stall when asked to use menus, particularly those with more than five to seven options. This often contributes to the less-than-expected adoption of enterprise HCM systems, which means decisions are being made (by managers and employees) without leveraging the correct or necessary information, and it contributes to the now well-chronicled condition of having overwhelmed employees. It’s also a major speed bump in the quest to offer a superior employee experience.

  • Bots allow employees to ask whatever questions they want, without caring about how the question (or how they) will be perceived.

In 2017 I had an opportunity to form and preside over a virtual roundtable of 10 CHRO’s from well-known organizations who were starting to sponsor (or at least investigate) the merits of bots in their organization. Two interesting takeaways from that experience:

  • When asked “what is the prevailing perspective about HR bots in your organization?” half the group of 10 stated in a pre-roundtable survey that they were either “actively pursuing use cases and anxious to see early results” or they were “very enthusiastic about the potential, given early results.” The other half of the group were still in search of a business case.

  • One participant, a global professional services firm with 250,000 employees (therefore a fairly large IT organization for these initiatives) built an on-boarding bot to smoothly guide employees through their first day on the job. It allowed employees to effortlessly ask the bot a question like, “Who in the IT department do I need to speak to in order to get my laptop?” In the version of the bot, this firm demonstrated, not only did the chatbot identify the IT person to speak to (including a photo, email and phone number), but also provided a floor map with walking directions to get there.

And in 2018, in the context of my industry analyst practice, I became acquainted with one of the emerging players in the enterprise bots space, a U.S.-based company called Actionable Science. Here is an excerpt from my interview with co-founders Saurabh Kumar and Manish Sharma, particularly focusing on what was unique about their go-to-market vision and product strategy:

What are the major ways your HR bot (“Vera”) can be viewed as different among HR bots suppliers, and different in a way that would be associated with incremental advantage and value by customers?

A / S co-founders: Most HR bots supplied by vendors are product-centric. They are making their product available through a specific chat interface. Vera is designed to be employee-centric and can cut across various products; so someone having a child can easily and efficiently deal with payroll/W-4 tasks, leave options and workflow approvals, benefit changes and communication to the team. This design strategy makes it all conversational and consultative.

Also, Vera is designed for the enterprise, and in that context, “she” can provide a high-quality multi-bot employee experience that pure-play HR bots cannot. For example, employee onboarding can be handled by our IT bot James and HR Bot Vera working together to provide a complete experience that cuts across functional silos. So Vera is designed to not just chat, but orchestrate and manage complex activities and business processes.


What is the longer-term vision for Vera, if you can share?

A / S co-founders: The vision/roadmap for Vera is to provide a best-in-class conversational HR experience that closely works in tandem with the human team. To this end, Vera has strong human collaboration built in; e.g., case management for assigning action items to human team members, in-built, dynamic escalations to humans to get agents involved real-time when needed, in-built language training so human agents can teach Vera instantaneously and on-demand, pre-built integrations with multiple HR systems, etc.


Parting Thoughts

Finally, here is my recommendation for five things CHRO’s should be doing to reap the benefits of bots in HR:

  1. Get educated (quickly) on the capabilities landscape
  2. Assess your organization’s readiness along various key dimensions such as the degree of IT support and involvement you will need depending on the HR bots supplier you partner with
  3. Prioritize potential use cases; e.g., based on business value, time to business value and investment required
  4. Understand the implications for your HR Technology ecosystem
  5. Manage expectations along the journey

Writer’s Bio: Steve Goldberg’s 30-year career on all sides of HR process and technology has included practitioner leadership roles in the U.S. and Europe, serving as HCM product strategy head and global spokesperson at PeopleSoft, and HCM research director / VP roles at leading analyst and advisory firms. Steve also co-founded a Recruiting Software company (later acquired) and a boutique consultancy focused on HR Technology, HR-M&A and Change Management. In recent years, he has been advising HCM solution providers from startups to market leaders and delivering workshops to HR executives on HR technology selection, people analytics, and change management. Steve holds an MBA in HR and BBA in Industrial Psychology, has published over 25 articles and white papers and regularly participates in HR technology influencer summits. He currently serves as Board Advisor to Actionable Science and therefore does not include Actionable Science or other HR bots vendors in his industry research coverage.


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