Episode 20: Jeanne Meister on the Future Workplace and the Importance of AI for HR Teams  

This week on AI at Work, Rob May interviewed Jeanne Meister, Founding Partner at The Future Workplace. Tune in to hear her take on the future of work, and why it is going to be so important for HR teams to embrace AI. 

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Rob May, CEO and Co-Founder,

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Jeanne Meister, Founding Partner, The Future Workplace 


 Episode Transcription 

Rob May: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the latest episode of AI at Work. I am Rob May, the co-founder and CEO of Talla. We have an automation platform that is AI-driven for customer service and knowledge management. If you like the show, I hope you'll check us out and see what we have to offer. My guest today on the show is Jeanne Meister, she's a founding partner at Future Workplace. Jeanne and I met when she was writing an article about the future of work a couple of years ago actually, and interviewed me for the article. Jeanne, welcome to the program. Why don't you give us a little bit about your background and what you're working on these days.

Jeanne Meister: Well, first thank you very much for inviting me, Rob. It's a pleasure to be here. Future Workplace is an HR advisory and research firm working with heads of HR leaders and their teams on preparing them for the future workforce and workplace. One of the big initiatives we've had in 2018 is the creation of a series of short online courses to upskill HR leaders on the future of work. One of the courses we've developed and actually have a Tala client in is called Using AI for HR to enhance the employee experience. Look forward to talking about that and lots of other things.

RM: This April in Forbes magazine you wrote a piece called, "The Future of Work, How Using AI Creates an Enhanced Candidate and Employee Experience." Tell us a little bit about the employee experiences that you wrote about in the article and how AI plays into that.

JM: What's really interesting in that article is that I profiled both Hilton and Marriott, so we're beginning to see AI solutions outside of the technology companies, right? In both cases, both Marriott and Hilton started with identifying the same business problem.

The business problem they were experiencing was in the talent acquisition and recruiting area, and they looked at how they could improve the experience and the effectiveness of candidates who interact with their brands. In both cases, they receive anywhere from two million to four million applications to work at a Marriott or Hilton globally. It could be a very labor intensive assignment. In both instances, they have used chatbots as the first point of contact to interact with candidates, answering frequently asked questions, shepherding them through the process.

One of the big takeaways is, it eliminates the big black box of recruiting where somebody fills out an application on the career website and then never hears back from the company. In this way, they've said, “Why should you be able to track your package on Amazon instantly and know where it is, but not know where you are in the application process.?" Both of these chatbot solutions guide the candidate through the process, let them know where they are, what things are missing in their overall application, and answer some vision questions and questions about the culture of the organization.

RM: I assume those companies like that in part because it makes everything more efficient for them. Have they gotten feedback from the candidates about whether the candidates like it more or less?

JM: Actually, I was on CBS recently with the head of talent acquisition for Hilton Hotels and a Hilton employee who actually got their job by interviewing with the chatbot on Hilton. It was interesting this candidate who represents a minority said that he felt that there was a lot less potential for bias and discrimination in the process because there were a standard set of questions and he was going to be recommended to the next step regardless of his affiliation with any ethnic group. 

He presented that as a big plus in the process. One of the big points of resistance, certainly among HR leaders, is wait a minute aren't these chatbots taking the human out of human resources. Ideally, they're here to enhance the recruiting process so that the recruiting manager actually has more time to be more human and answer questions and close the deal on the top candidates. Hilton found that they were able to shorten the process by about 75%. And importantly, they were able to identify top candidates sooner in the process.

RM: That's pretty interesting. There's a lot of talk about AI and bias in models. There hasn't been a lot of talk about the example that you gave, which is in a lot of ways they can standardize the process of information collection so there isn't bias when collecting that information and doing the initial screening. I think that's a really good example.

One of the things that I'm excited about having you on for is, you don't come from a highly technical background, but in the last couple of years that I've known you, you have just voraciously dug into artificial intelligence. You're very early in identifying the impact that it was going to have and everything else. What's your experience been like digging into something that is very technical? What have you done to learn about this that if one of our listeners is out there and they are a VP of HR somewhere and they're saying like, “Okay, this all sounds like crazy technical. I don't how do you get started.” What advice do you give them?

JM: Well I'm in your shoes number one. I do not have a technical background. I saw AI as the opportunity to greatly enhance the people processes of an organization. We actually have a course called Using AI for HR, and one of the first things I did was really get a handle on the definitions and the nomenclature. What is AI? What isn't AI? What is machine learning in its simplest form and how can it be used as a way to enhance and transform employee experience and candidate experience?

Part of the learning for the course was the curation of many different articles on how artificial intelligence has the power to totally transform the entire employee lifecycle from recruiting to onboarding, learning and development, performance management, and coaching. We identified in our course a technology roadmap, Talla is a company on it, and there's actually about 80 to 100 AI companies just focused on various aspects of human resources. I went to school on it, got demos, met Rob early on, and really tried to understand what the solution was. But, so many of the good executions of this start with what's the business problem and what's the change management process that the company has to put in place because it's a big one.

RM: That's a great lead in to another question, which is, if you want to use Talla successfully, you have to change the way that you work a little bit. You have to do this for a couple of reasons, right? AI machine learning models work best with labeled data. If you can make a lot of your workflows and work processes, data labeling processes, training processes. We're not used to training software, but if you can train it the way you would train a person, it really changes things.

And on the output side, the outputs aren't binary. Sometimes they're probabilistic. They're like weather reports, oh we're 80% sure of this, 95% sure. A lot of the conversations we've had with customers is, there's some customers who embrace the new way of working, and they see extraordinary benefits from the tool, right? We're talking saving teams you know 30 40 full-time employees a year.

Then we have other people that have a very hard time adapting to the new way of working. I think there's a huge role for HR here that they haven't embraced, which is doing the training and change management around these new types of workflows. Is that an area that you've seen companies focus on? Are you thinking about any content or courses around that because it seems like something that's very overlooked right now?

JM: Absolutely. We're building a whole portfolio of online courses to upscale the HR teams to the new way of work. And what I've seen is that sadly the HR department are one of the biggest barriers to using AI for HR. Many of the team members have to really embrace the vision and the opportunity that AI or a chat bot, you really have to think of it as another team member, which means you have to understand how to orient, train, retrain, and refresh the knowledge of this new team member. And as Gardner says, by 2022, one in five knowledge workers will have a bot that they're working side by side with. So that's only a couple of years away. We're all going to be experiencing it if we haven't already.

RM: What advice do you give companies that are looking to deploy AI from the perspective of a lot of times, particularly big companies, and I know you work with a lot of big companies. When new technologies come along they take the approach of, let's let other people adopt this. Let's let them work the kinks out, and then we'll adopt it. Can you do that with AI or does that put you at a significant disadvantage? Does it put you too far behind?

JM: I think it totally puts you too far behind. We have a model that we've created called Rapid. And it starts with recognize the urgency. Recognize the urgency for looking at how artificial intelligence is really going to transform the people practices, understand the business problem, and start building the business case and stakeholders.

One of the barriers I see is that HR leaders are trying to solve it by themselves. And this is really a cross-functional opportunity. So in our last course, the ideal team that we had take the course as a cohort was, we're 20 people from one organization almost evenly divided between HR team members, IT team members, and communications. And those are the core disciplines of a big company that have to come together on a shared vision and identify what's the early use case. And often it is in talent acquisition or in just people analytics in HR. I think that one of the real-- there's a lot of interest in proactive retention. How do we begin to develop data on who might be likely to leave the organization? That's becoming a really hot area as we as a country have the lowest unemployment rate in something like two decades.

RM: One of the use cases we see a lot for Tala that we didn't anticipate is because we have these workflows where as you can answer questions about information and when they're not answered they go into a queue they get routed to somebody to answer. A lot of people come looking for it to capture tribal knowledge because they're worried about the things people know in their heads that they're going to leave and take with them. And the idea is if you can get that into a shared tool, now an AI that knows it and can regurgitate that information. It takes a lot of risk out of the company and that employee turnover.

JM: When when somebody leaves, they're not bringing their knowledge with them. It's being captured someplace else.

RM: Do you have any fear or potential dangers of AI in the future of work or things that you caution people about like, hey this piece could really turn bad be careful?

JM: Well, actually, we start the course with a great question that got everybody going online anyway. And it's describe your dreams and nightmares using AI in your company. and the nightmares were all around, I'm going to lose my job, the bot is only as good as it's been trained and there's the possibility that it will have even more bias in recruiting or training individuals. People will not understand the implications on how they need to be retrained and up skilled. There's a percentage in a new report from Accenture of which I'm a former employee, that 120 million people in 10 countries will need to be retrained over the next two years because of artificial intelligence and automation.

Obviously fears are personal. It's like, “I'm going to lose my job. It's going to have more bias. I'm not going to understand the algorithm.” I guess, Rob, that's a question for you. How do you explain that to a client?

RM: I think first of all, I do not fall into the camp of believing that in the near term AI is going to take a lot of jobs. I mean it will definitely take some and people will have to be retrained, but I'm not worried about a negative impact where in 10 years none of us have jobs. I think what we see at Talla, and I think what a lot of the companies that I'm invested in that do AI, see is that people actually hire more. They redeploy resources, they move people up the stack. AI is taking a lot of the lower level, more monotonous work right now. Obviously you can see a path to 20 or 30 years down the road where AI does everything better than humans, and I don't know what happens there. But for now I don't think it's that big of a problem. I think it's going to be-- I think everybody's going to work with an assistant and I think they're going to just all make us better at our jobs. I'm excited about it.

JM: Absolutely. I think one of the fears is the company quote unquote is going to develop an AI strategy without communicating to employees what they're doing. So the fear is employees are going to be in the dark of, “Okay, we know the company is embracing AI. What does that really mean for me?” Hence, the real importance of change management and developing a robust communication plan and cascading it down.

RM: I mean, communication is paramount in any kind of change management, right? AI or not. Let's take a little bit of a different turn here, you're very focused on HR teams and when they're not deploying AI, they are thinking now about hiring more data scientists, more AI people. These are new roles. They're poorly understood. They're under supplied in the market. The whole thing is very disruptive. What what's your advice for people there? How should they approach that? Or, what are you seeing?

JM: Well, I'm seeing just about everybody I interview, I'm a contributor to Forbes, the forward-looking HR leaders, the only people they're adding to their teams are data scientists and heads of people analytics or talent analytics. My advice to anybody that's in an HR role is, take a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) fast. Enroll in a MOOC and the elements, the fundamentals of people analytics because I think we all, in HR have to acquire this skill set. We don't have to relearn how to code, but we need to know enough about the power of data analytics and how it's going to help us make better decisions in HR. So I think the onus is on all of us to up skill and retrain and understand that we have to be more technical in HR and decisions are data driven.

RM: That's very good insight. You have a book, The Future Workplace Experience. Tell us a little bit about the framework that that introduces and what can we expect from the book?

JM: The Future Workplace Experience really starts with a call to action, which says “HR is moving.” It's a book for HR leaders. HR is moving from being process driven to focus on employee experience. Really, the one sentence summary of the book is that, “Your last best experience as a consumer anywhere is the minimum expectation that you have as an employee for your employer.”

That's a high bar. So, think about your HR department, some of them may run the post office, right? Now, we're asking them to run more like an Apple store or Amazon or Netflix. It's all about personalizing the candidate and employee experience. Much of the book looks at, how can HR take a leadership role and be a workplace activist by developing partnerships outside of HR to focus on the workplace experience. Importantly, with marketing. We have a network called The Future Workplace Network, we just had a meeting with our members and at GE, the new head of learning is also the chief marketing officer of the company. We're beginning to see marketing, the head of marketing, now absorb the HR and the learning function in order to focus on and integrate the consumer experience with the employee experience.

RM: It makes a lot of sense. Years ago, I heard Beth Comstock, when she was the CMO at GE, speak at an event. She said something like, “I have 5,000 people that report to me. I have 90 seconds to talk to them and after that many of them are checking out. Whatever they need to know I have to condense, here's the one thing I need you to take away, which is a very good marketing lesson.” It's very similar, right? It makes a lot of sense that things are moving in that direction. If people are interested in learning more about your book or future workplace, where can they go?

JM: Our company website is futureworkplace.com. I hope you explore our course of which one of Tala clients on the course from our loop looking at how they're using the chat bot for new hire onboarding. The website of the course is usingAI4hr.com.

RM: Jean Meister, thanks for joining us today. Thank you for listening. If you have guests you'd like to see or questions you would like us to ask, please send those to podcast@tala.com. We will see you next week.

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