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How AI can boost employee engagement

An organization’s competitive advantage is the collaborative capital of the collective. AI can significantly boost employee engagement.

An organization’s competitive advantage is not its individual employees but the collaborative capital of the collective. AI can significantly boost that.

Written by Jon Ingham, edited by Sadhana Balaji.

“Our strength is our people,” says every organization everywhere in the world. This philosophy misses an important nuance: The real strength is not in each individual but in their connections, networks and collaborative capabilities, otherwise called ‘social capital.’ In other words, organizations aren’t succeeding because of their people but because of the way people work together. 

Therefore, the primary responsibility of the HR practice is to leverage our activities to create these social capabilities and positive impacts for the business. Obviously, these are not simple causal relationships because organizations are much more complex than that. So, HR teams can struggle. It is here that I expect artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies to make the most significant impact. 

So far, AI has been primarily used to improve employee efficiency — with automation of repetitive workflows, tools like ChatGPT etc. While these have offered marginal improvement, we’re yet to see something transformative come out of this, simply because there is only so much you can optimize for each individual on their own. As a network of people, organizations have much bigger opportunities with AI. Here are some ways in which it’s likely to manifest.

The ever-willing-to-help office buddy

An idea already taking shape is an intelligent chatbot that helps onboard new hires, like a bot buddy. It will immediately and willingly answer all questions, like how do I apply for leave, when is the next holiday, who should I ping for claiming an allowance and so on. Typically, these conversations happen between colleagues through employee communities. But let’s face it: no community wants to spend time and energy in these simple, almost boilerplate interactions. AI can remove that burden from the community, freeing them to innovate on higher-value problems.

GPS for the hybrid work maze

Post-pandemic, many companies are taking a cookie-cutter approach to ‘hybrid work,’ mandating people come to the office 2-3 days a week. They say, “Come twice, we don’t mind when.” Then, naturally, different people come in at different times, and the purported collaboration doesn’t happen. So, they began saying, “Come to the office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” because it’s a simple solution, but it doesn’t optimize anything. Employees are obviously uncomfortable. 

Today’s simple solutions don’t take into account each individual’s situations, challenges, needs, priorities and working styles, mainly because such data is also unavailable. A good AI solution can fix that. It can look at the various groups each employee participates in, their individual and collaborative work, and personal preferences to create schedules automatically. These schedules can be different for each team, department, office location, and so on, creating effective and people-centric organizations!

Everyone’s executive assistant

An essential facet of people-centricity is personalization. Until now, this mainly happened through line managers. Every manager worked closely with their teams to understand them, identify strengths and gaps, and design their experience accordingly. However, this approach is limited by the capabilities of the line manager, with the organization itself merely able to offer support. 

With AI, organizations can personalize their employees' experience in more ways than ever imagined. The learning capabilities of AI can get much closer to each employee, treating them in the unique ways they need support. An AI personal assistant can improve individual productivity, of course. But it can do much more. 

  • Pair team members with complementary skills to maximize value. 
  • Connect people with similar interests across the organization, which would otherwise be impossible in large corporations. 
  • Introduce employees facing similar challenges to each other for better teamwork. 
  • Make coaching and mentoring initiatives more effective by uniting the right people. 
  • Support performance reviews and enable employees to apply for internal jobs.

The fundamental difference in using AI is that it can include more than just the basic data provided by employees themselves. It can use data from their conversations, preferences, working hours, past calendars, etc., to create a more holistic profile of each individual. It enables a better understanding and, therefore, more meaningful action. The possibilities are truly endless.

The ultimate difference between organizations that leverage their social capital and those that don’t would be management intent. Focusing on near-term ROI would lead investments towards immediate ‘efficiency’ gains. However, building towards long-term returns would give organizations a deeper understanding of team dynamics and mutual influences. This opens up the superpower to improve employee effectiveness and collective value, something every organization would soon want.

About Jon Ingham

Jon is a consultant, trainer, speaker and writer focusing on strategic and innovative management and organization of people. He delivers and facilitates learning through the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy in order to help HR practitioners and teams develop their own strategic capabilities. He is the author of 'Strategic Human Capital Management' (2006) and 'The Social Organization' (2017), among others. 

More about his work here.

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