3 Reasons Conversational Technology Should Be on Your Radar

Full disclosure: When I’m not on the road attending an HR event, I probably speak to Amazon’s Alexa at home more than just about all the people I know. I ask her when my next meeting is, how long it will take me to drive somewhere, to play the “HR Happy Hour Show” and lots more. And that is not even mentioning at all the “non-work” interactions I have with Alexa–including getting the weather forecast, playing music and reading the news headlines of the day. I interact with Alexa so often these days, it is kind of hard to remember LBA–life before Alexa. And that is the hallmark or signature of any essential technology – once you adopt it into your workflow and rhythm, you can’t imagine not having that technology available. One key feature of Alexa is that she is pretty much always there, just waiting for me to ask her to do something, to help, to give me information, to remind me of something important.

Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, a judge on TV’s “Shark Tank” and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, recently shared at the SXSW Conference what areas of technology he’d focus on if he were to launch a new business: “If I were going to start a business today, I’d build it around Alexa and Google Home.” Cuban and others see the enormous potential in conversational and voice-enabled technologies. And while I am not sure Cuban was thinking about HR tech when he made that comment, there does seem to be incredible opportunities there for these tools–think “Alexa for HR”–to make a huge impact in the workplace. At the recent Oracle Modern Business Experience event, I was able to see one of the latest HR tech solutions that is intended to leverage these trends, and it got me to thinking just how massive the impact and potential these kinds of tools may have in the next few years and how HR leaders need to be prepared.

Here are the three main areas where I see conversational and voice-enabled technology helping HR, employees and their organizations.

Information Access and Retrieval

There’s an old saying that goes “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” In many workplaces, we probably could say the same thing about information–procedures, policies, contact information for team members and, for some, even our own personal HR-related information like pay, benefits, leave and more. McKinsey research in 2012 estimated that knowledge workers spend as much as 1.8 hours each day searching for the information they need to do their jobs. While there have been numerous advances in enterprise knowledge management since 2001 that make that 1.8 hours per day figure seem high in 2019, most of us would probably agree that easier, faster and simpler access to the basic information we need to keep productive is still desired today.

Much of the frustration we have with finding the information we need at work stems from an interface problem. Information resides in different systems, databases and, increasingly, cloud-based systems. We may need information from multiple systems in any given day, and these systems typically require us to know how to access and make inquiries of each of them–all different and all having their own “front-door” or access protocol. Voice-enabled, conversational systems have the potential to remove that layer of complexity, reduce the barriers to adoption and make any HR or enterprise information accessible using the simplest interface possible: just by asking for it. It (probably) won’t be called Alexa, but soon most of us will have an HR version of Alexa, putting us just a voice command away from the information we seek. While that is incredibly empowering, it is just the first step.

Process Support and Increased Efficiency

Once you have basic information, you must use that information to initiate action. In a common HR-related example, you may ask your digital HR assistant, “How much PTO do I have left this year?” Developing a simple, voice-enabled assistant that can reply to you with your PTO balance isn’t all that complex today. But most of us want to do something with that information, like initiate a request for some time off. Modern HR digital assistants using voice-enabled technology like the kind I saw at the Oracle event recently support the initiation of that time-off request, either via a voice command (“I would like to request time off next Thursday”) or via a chat-based interface. Either way, the technology is not just enabling a simple result of a database query, but is also providing a no-training-required method for a business process to be launched and managed. Just like the PTO request was simple to launch, it is also simple for the manager to approve, again by a simple voice command or a chat-based response.

The example of a PTO request and approval represents a common but simple application of process facilitation via voice. But these tools can support much more complex HR processes like promotions, transfers, compensation adjustments and more. The underlying systems, workflows, business rules, etc. to support these transactions have existed in HR systems for a long time. What is new and exciting is how modern technology and voice-responsive apps make these processes so much simpler, faster and more accessible to people outside the HR function.

Advanced Digital Assistants

The history, development and evolution of technology suggest that these tools will soon move to higher value-added and complicated functions, much like the ones a trusted colleague or assistant might help you with today.

If the first two primary-use cases of conversational technologies are information retrieval (i.e., “What members of the staff are on vacation this week?”) and workflow or process-completion support (i.e., “Please approve the time off request on Wednesday for Jane Doe”), the next step is a deeper analysis of data, process and environment to help managers and employees make better, faster decisions. When the digital assistant “sees” the staffing situation and understands the implications of having a given location understaffed on a particular day or for a shift, it will then proactively, based on data and history, “push” recommendations to the manager. Something along the lines of, “I see you have just approved the time-off request on Wednesday for Jane Doe. You may need to consider calling in temporary staff for that afternoon. Here are three contractors you have worked with in the past who are available. Shall I contact the top-rated contractor to schedule them for Wednesday?”

At that point, the manager could then indicate “Yes” and the digital assistant could launch the “contractor-scheduling” workflow and handle the tasks of messaging the resource, providing necessary information they need about the shift and confirming that all relevant parties are notified, up to date and prepared. This example takes the the simple information retrieval, combined with support and awareness of a standard process, and applies more advanced intelligence to help the manager drive the most optimal business decision. This is just one example (that I admittedly made up), but it seems clear to me that the ultimate power of these solutions lies in these kinds of applications.

It may be early days in the development of voice-enabled and conversational HR technology, but this is the kind of innovation that seems likely to drive the next wave of HR tech. We do plan to highlight conversational tech as well, as all the other types of new, innovative HR-tech solutions, at the HR Technology Conference Oct. 1-4 in Las Vegas. There you will be able to learn more and from the full range of progressive HR leaders and innovative technology and service providers on how you can best approach and apply voice and other new HR technology to help your organization meet its most pressing HR, talent and business challenges.

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.