A year with a robot as my HR coach

By Erik Korsvik Østergaard, 7. October 2018

In 2017 we wanted to explore the use of software robots in leadership. Could such automation and artificial intelligence help me as a leader? The answer was ‘yes’, but not in the way that I expected.

Let’s try it

Half of our jobs can be automated. 20% of a leaders tasks can be automated. And more and more employees hint at that they kinda like that. See for example this Forbes article, or this study that we conducted in 2016 together with DARE2.

The predictions are everywhere … so let’s test it and try it, to learn and shape the future of software in leadership. Sometimes also nicknamed Roboboss.

Most often we debate automation of blue-collar work or work that is filled with routines, like, book keeping or booking meetings. ‘Automation happens to those over there’, we tend to say. But, why not challenge yourself and investigate which parts of your job as a manager and leader, that can be taken over by a piece of software? Can software support you, or replace you?

For several years I’d been interested in people analytics and predictive analysis on HR data. Can we foresee stress? Can we spot the talents? Can we predict when a manager leaves the team to a competitor? Can we monitor the organizational network and find the social change agents?

And, can a piece of software give me useful advice as a leader?

What did we do

In 2017 we purchased a software solution (we chose to try out OfficeVibe) and deployed it to our small organization. The job for the software robot, called Leo, is to ask us how we’re doing and return to me with results – and advice.

It does this weekly, on a random day, by reaching out to us by email or via Slack, giving us a link to a small survey with 4-5 questions about results, workload, delegation, feedback, well-being, sleep quality, exercise, transparency, strategy, and other elements.

Based on that it presents me as the leader with a dashboard with 10 parameters in it, and a comparison to organizations with similar size and in similar industry. Finally, it gives me suggestions on what to do to tackle issues, that Leo has found, either ideas for workshops and internal processes, content to read, or company-cultural activities. So, Leo gives me advice as a leader! Leo is my HR coach.

The longer time we used it, the more we learned about ourselves. It was a success. Software robots really CAN help us as leaders, but the learning came from us, not from the robot.

Two major learnings

There are two major take-away’s from this.

First of all, it’s clear that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people analytics and predictive analysis in the HR field. The more sophisticated the software gets, and the more data it gets access to – both from surveys and from IOT and telemetric data from your behavior e.g. on your computer and in your office systems – the more qualified analysis, recommendations, and predictions it can make. It can even act before you do.

We’re looking into five potential data sources:

  • Basic HR data (age, education, skill set, previous roles etc.)
  • Survey data (our opinions)
  • Behavior data (like the telemetry data generated in Microsoft O365 or from IOT)
  • Relations (data collected and visualized as Organizational Networks – ONA)
  • Output data from production (like documents, perceived value, profit, results)

No doubt, this kind of solutions can and will replace some parts of my work. I absolutely see it as an augmentation to our role and function as leaders, and I welcome it. However, with the premise that we must have a debate and alignment on the ethics side of this. Many leaders who engage in shaping their future will at some point start adjusting their moral compass, and debate both humanistic and philosophical angles to work and the way we behave and treat each other. The use of data and the amount of transparency is a part of this, as is the role of software.

Secondly, we learned a lot about ourselves in the organization and as individuals in our collaborative teamwork. Partly, because Leo asked us questions, we’ve never asked before. In that sense it removes confirmation bias from the conversations we have internally. Fantastic input to me as a leader, to get new views on the issues! Partly, because we looked at Leos recommendations with a good amount of skepticism.

“So, Leo reports to us, that we need to have more often 1-on-1 conversations. Is he right?”, we would ask. The truth was, that we met 1-on-1 weekly, and had daily chats with each other. None of us could recognize the issue, that Leo brought up. BUT, it made us have a conversation about the frequency and quality of the 1-on-1’s and on who talked with whom and about what. That was some amazing dialogue, that we never would have had without the input from Leo.

Leo was a fantastic tool and helped us in developing a new level for internal dialogue on strategy, innovation, culture, organizing, and leadership. We closed this experiment by the end of 2017 and said goodbye to Leo.

Now in 2018, we’re trying two new systems, and we’re experimenting with how few data points we can measure, and still get useful debates and support for each other.

We’ve debated the thoughts and learning in our Danish podcast in Episode 3 “Hvad har robotter med ledelse at gøre?” and Episode 16 “High tech eller high touch”, and in two blog postings about augmented leadership: To bot or not to bot, part 1 and part 2.

What to look out for

From my work the past five years I’ve codified five guiding principles, that frames the mindset of those leaders that shape the future:

  1. People First
  2. Purpose, meaning, sense-making and value-creation
  3. Continuous innovation and experimentation
  4. An insatiable drive for results
  5. Everybody has the possibility to take a lead

This kind of leadership software is a great augmentation and support for leaders, managers, and organizations. I’m a fan, and I’ll recommend you experiment with similar tools and approaches yourself.

Can software support you? Absolutely yes! Can software replace you? No.

I truly believe, that we can grow faster and safer into this by using software robots to help and support us, but emotional intelligence, creativity, intuition, politics, social culture, and taking care of each other is not going to be fully automated. Partly because it’s extremely complex; partly because we will not allow it.

We shape the future together, and a responsibility herein is to control the application of artificial intelligence. Let’s debate the ethics also.

The world and your employees have changed.
Do you want to keep up
– and shape the future?

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