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What relevance do chatbots have for the HR department?

Chatbots are suddenly getting a tremendous amount of attention, but fewer conversations are happening about their potential for HR specifically. Here’s why that’s a mistake.

Communication has been revolutionized by technology, and now the question is whether HR software transactions,...

and beyond that e-commerce in general, are about to be revolutionized by chatbots.

Before I answer, let's start by defining chatbots, alternatively written as chat bots and which are increasingly simply referred to as bots. Essentially, chatbots are interactive software programs embedded in messaging apps that imitate conversation with a person. They are increasingly used to complete tasks and often rely on artificial intelligence.

WeChat is an example of a messaging tool with embedded bots that has dominated Asia. For some perspective, user counts show 300 million active users of Skype and 752 million active users of WeChat. Users of the free messaging app can make doctors' appointments, buy products, play games and send money to their friends -- the list goes on and on. WeChat is what I consider the first major push for bots on the macro level.

The second macro push came from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. In April Zuckerberg announced that Messenger was going to be extended from its origin of friend-to-friend communication to consumer-to-business applications. Even beyond allowing you to chat with businesses, he was specifically referring to the ability to embed that artificial intelligence into Messenger. The same WeChat value proposition is at stake, and in the case of Facebook, you may already have a connection (i.e., a page like) with the businesses themselves.

To consider the potential uses for chatbots in e-commerce, just think of transactions you typically make with airline carriers. Checking flights, researching future flight purchases, speaking with representatives -- all of these could be potentially conducted through the use of a chatbot. Think of it as the interactive voice system you're still occasionally subjected to, but now the automated system has an even higher probability of completing your overall transaction or directing you to where you need to go.

Now that I've set some context, let's talk about bots' relevance to human resources. 

For me, the potential value of chatbots in the HR context is most easily predicted by the value of self-service transactions in HR. These already have names:

  • Candidate self-service
  • Manager self-service
  • Employee self-service

I can speak for many of my clients by saying that self-service has had some impact on HR's ability to become strategic, but there are still too many operational duties to truly free up enough of their time. Ironically, educating employees on the self-service applications themselves now takes up some of that precious time.

That's where chatbots may help because standardizing and simplifying transactions will likely mean more adoption and successful completion of said transactions. After all, user adoption -- or lack thereof -- has been the major ding on self-service HR technology to date. How many times in a year does an employee need to enroll in benefits? How many times in a year does an employee have a new baby to enter in the system in a year? In other words, if an employee doesn't use a system extensively, unless it is super intuitive, he's likely to not only have a hard time completing the transaction, but even remembering where to go to complete it. But with a chatbot, an employee's starting point becomes a chat window, with which we're all familiar. It isn't flashy, granted, but who needs flashy when the goal is to add or change relevant employee information. I can think of many transactions that become simpler, for employees as well as HR.

Yet, every potential solution brings its challenges. The first one has to do with whether your employees can stomach yet another chat tool. In the past week, for example, the chat tools I've used have included Skype, Facebook Messenger, phone texts, WhatsApp, Google Chat and one that's getting plenty of buzz -- Slack.

What Slack offers as its differentiators, beyond team communication and the easy ability to create groups, are the chatbot applications.

Of these, Slack is probably the most important when it comes to HR's application of bots. For one thing, Slack has quickly become the new communication mechanism, or in many cases the replacement of existing tools on the market, to standardize the way employees communicate with one another. Beyond that, Slack offers chatbot applications as well a growing library of integrations with other tools (and the opportunity to develop more). Those two items taken together give it great potential for integrating with existing HR software. Slack is not a promised land guaranteed to make HR's life easier, however.

Beyond the issue of chat application overload, think about the security implications. To make any given chatbot function truly transactional, you'd need to transmit HR data, which includes some of the most sensitive demographic and compensation employee data. If you decide you're going to selectively pass information that is less sensitive, then you're immediately saying that you will not handle some percentage of your transactions, which means that employees will need to know where to go for different transactions. Granted, the chatbot itself can direct the employee, but again you're still not fully efficient.

Given the security issues, for today, HR software vendors need to embed both messaging and the associated bot technology into their products for chatbots to become a widespread reality in HR. I already know of several hard at work on this very topic, and trust me I'll be watching -- and helping in some cases -- as the vendors realize the potential of chatbots.

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