AI – are we there yet?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has undergone numerous Hype Cycles over the last five decades but, if theanalysts are to be believed, we now find ourselves once again at the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ – with the impending ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ ahead.

We caught up with Chris Bruce, MD and co-founder of Thomsons Online Benefits, looking at how HCM companies can benefit from AI in the future – and how this will also transform the employee experience, with a focus on benefits.

But, are we really? The media has raised consumer expectations by proliferating visions of intelligent assistants and self-driving cars, but while these are some way off becoming reality, AI is still a critical technology, one which could contribute $15.7tr to the global economy by 2030. This potential means that we’re seeing increased development of machine learning algorithms, the benefits of which are being felt across industries – from manufacturing to financial services. The opportunity presented by AI was also recognised in the recent Budget, which commits £20 million to supporting businesses working in AI and £9 million to the establishment of an AI advisory body.


Organisations in the HCM space are taking great strides towards AI, particularly in the shared servicefunction using smart software, but they also need to be vigilant, and ensure they’re walking the walk before they talk the talk. It requires a new skill set within the HR department to gain greater technical understanding – for instance considering how virtual assistants can add value to an employee experience and the appropriate moments to deploy them. This means having a clear idea of what constitutes true AI and how it can positively impact the employee when they come to the service desk, before investing in the infrastructure that allows them to deliver it.


How AI might benefit employees

Reading the above you might think I’m sceptical about AI. I’m not. I see huge potential in the technology to transform the relationship between employee and employer and revolutionise the employee experience. If we take employee benefits as an example. AI could play a critical role in educating employees on their benefits and helping them to make the right decisions.


Benefits advice has gone from being administered by paper to being digitally delivered – and yet employees are clearly looking for the best of both mediums. This was highlighted by our recentEmployee Benefits Watch 2016/17 research, showing that two thirds of employees are keen to hear about relevant benefits at life milestones such as marriage or childbirth.


AI provides a means to achieving this level of personalisation on a huge scale. By gaining knowledge on employees; details on their demographic, interests, health etc., AI could work out which benefits are likely to be most appropriate for them. We’re already making steps towards this, using analytics on huge datasets to help target benefits communications to specific employees profiles. A recent parent for example, could automatically be served with information on their employer’s parental leave scheme.


While integration of AI into HR and benefits systems could improve the employee experience and ensure they’re better served by their organisations, some employees may have concerns. Personal data and how this is used by organisations is high on the public and political agenda – particularly with GDPR on the horizon – and employers need to be sensitive to this. It’s paramount that employers are able to answer employees’ questions on exactly how their data is being used, and explain how this is enabling them to create tailored ‘services’ to meet their specific needs.


How AI will benefit employers

AI wouldn’t be generating such interest if the advantages were purely one-sided – it also presents huge opportunity for employers. One area where AI could be particularly useful is query management, quickly responding to issues experienced by employees rather than leaving them in a lengthy email queue or service centre ticket system. Integration with consumer technology could even enable employees to log queries from home – they could conceivably ask Alexa for help with their wellness scheme, for example. With Bersin’s latest research indicating that the most mature HR functions spend only 29% of their overall time on transactional work, AI could help those lagging behind become more efficient and effective.


Benefits are emblematic of an organisation, signifying how supportive it is of its employees and how committed to streamlining their work and personal lives. The way that benefits are delivered plays into this. The speed and accuracy with which AI could deliver or edit benefits, for example adding new-born children to medical insurance when maternity or paternity leave is taken, would reflect positively on an organisation.


Finally, AI can lead to improved benefits design. Our proprietary platform, Darwin, generates data from nearly 2,000,000 users. By crunching information from this data set and learning how employees’ benefits behaviour changes over time, AI could anticipate the perfect benefits programme for any individual. It also offers us the potential to transition away from predictive to prescriptive analytics. Let’s take health insurance premiums as an example. We can already draw on past data to predict the health needs of our workforce in five years’ time – but to be truly useful, analysis needs to factor in external trends; increasing obesity, longer life expectancy etc. AI has the potential to do this – analysing larger quantities of data at greater speeds to generate more meaningful insights than a human ever could.


How do we get there?

Those organisations that are able to deliver on AI and analytics five years down the line are those that are making changes now. We have for the last few years been making changes in our data architecture to make it easier to analyse the rich data that we hold.


The future for AI

Our expectations of AI may be inflated at present and tempered by concerns over data-use, but in the years to come it has the potential to surpass doubts and bring about massive, positive change. If I were to ask one thing of my fellow technology professionals, it would be not to over-promise on AI, doing so will only destroy confidence in the market and delay the advantages it can bring. Instead, make long-term plans for its adoption and build the infrastructure for its success. It’s only then that we’ll realise its super-human benefits.