Are Bots the New HR?

Bots and other forms of automation software are making their way into traditional human resources domains.
Bots

The bots are coming.

Bots, or automated software applications, range from the very simple to the very sophisticated, and they’re taking on more of the mundane tasks that make the talent economy tick, including finding, hiring and managing people.

By piggybacking on text messages and wildly popular messaging applications such as Slack that employees already use, they’re poised to be the future of people management technology, whether for collaborating with teammates, applying for a job, checking work schedules or looking up benefits.

One early adopter is Crowded Inc., a startup sourcing platform with a bot that asks questions of software developers applying for a job and uses their responses to fill out an application instead of making them type in the information themselves. Another is Overstock.com Inc., which relies on a bot named Mila to field notifications from call center employees who are too sick to come to work, pass the information onto managers and adjust schedules accordingly.

By eliminating back-office busywork, bots could eliminate human resources personnel. “My peers who are HR professionals are going to be out of jobs really soon and they haven’t got a clue,” said Rachel Maclean, chief operating officer and co-founder of Air HR Ltd., a U.K.-based startup that’s building a complete bot-based HR management suite. “There’s so much they do that’s low level, low value, it’s filling forms, shuffling papers and that can all be done by bots.”

Both established talent economy technology platforms and HR startups are beta-testing bots with an eye toward making products available later this year or in 2018. The pace of development is increasing thanks in no small part to the rise of technology platforms like Amazon.com’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home. The digital personal assistants have made consumers more comfortable using voice-activated search to check the weather, listen to music or perform other small tasks.

It’s also being swept along by the popularity of Slack and other enterprise social networks and collaboration tools, which analyst MarketsandMarkets predicts are growing an average 13.2 percent per year worldwide and will reach sales of $49.5 billion by 2021.

Since Slack launched three years ago, the collaborative work platform has collected 5 million daily users, including 1.5 million paid users. As Slack has grown, it’s inspired Facebook Inc. to open up its Messenger platform for work-related bots, Microsoft Corp. to add team collaboration to its work apps suite, and competition from other rivals.

Slackbots

Slack’s popularity in particular as an open application program interface, or API, that other companies can use to build their own apps on top of its core technology, has given rise to hundreds of Slack apps, or “Slackbots.” HR Slackbots, including dozens listed in an app directory on Slack’s website, let people use the tool to interact with their existing talent management and HR software. For example, instead of logging onto their company’s time-and-attendance platform to request time off, an employee could type a command into Slack such as “I’d like to request time off,” or “PTO,” and it would trigger the HR program’s Slackbot to ask questions about the type of time off being requested before processing the request in the time and attendance app.

In early February, SAP SE said it is testing Slackbots in several divisions, including a bot for the performance review module of SuccessFactors’ HR management suite. SuccessFactors is trying out the app on a handful of existing customers in Silicon Valley and some large retailers, and expects to release it later this year, said David Ragones, SAP SuccessFactors’ group vice president of product management. He said SAP is considering integrating with other enterprise collaboration tools but started with Slack because more customers use it.

While HR vendors like SAP fine-tune bot software code, they’re also deciding whether to charge extra for the new service or include it in existing prices. SAP is opting not to tack on an extra fee for its bot. “It’s part of our next generation of performance management,” Ragones said.

SAP’s announcement coincided with Slack’s rollout of an enterprise-level service that could attract even more HR tech vendors to build Slackbots. Some HR tech vendors haven’t waited. Zenefits and BambooHR, which sell rival core HR tech platforms for small- and midsized businesses, already integrate with Slack either directly or indirectly through third-party developers that provide the connections.

Chatbots

Slackbots are fairly limited, however, in their capability. More sophisticated programs built on natural language processing and machine learning have even more potential to disrupt existing talent management processes. The programs, often referred to as chatbots, are powered by massive information databases that allow them to carry on prolonged interactions with an employee or job candidate and get smarter as they collect more data.

TextRecruit, a San Jose, California-based startup that sells an SMS-based applicant tracking system and core HR service, is beta-testing a recruiting chatbot named Ari that organizations can use to fields questions from job seekers before passing qualified candidates onto a real recruiter for further vetting. The chatbot also works with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and is powered by the IBM Watson AI-enabled computer. It is in beta testing with five customers and is scheduled to be available by the end of the first quarter of 2017.

TextRecruit created the bot in part to help corporate users of its existing applicant tracking system that couldn’t respond to job candidates’ text messages fast enough. With the bot, TextRecruit customers collectively send 100,000 text messages a day, according to Erik Kostelnik, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Another reason proponents believe chatbots will take off is how quickly job candidates respond to bot-based queries compared to email. Crowded is getting an 88 percent response rate in beta tests of its recruiting chatbot, which uses text messages and Facebook Messenger to reach candidates, according to Howie Schwartz, Crowded’s CEO. “It’s not always yes, but they’re responding,” Schwartz said. Even better, average response times are under two minutes. “If you send an email, it could be days, or if you call someone you end up in voicemail and they never respond,” Schwartz said. He expects to start offering the chatbot to customers to use on their own career pages by the end of February. By spring, Schwartz expects the types of jobs and conversations the bot can handle to expand beyond software developers to salespeople and other positions.

Startups aren’t the only ones working on HR chatbots. In the fall of 2016, Workday Inc. announced a chatbot-based digital assistant that will let customers’ HR staff ask a question or type in a command to find information or complete tasks. “Users don’t need to open another tab, they can just ask Workday,” said Joe Korngiebel, the company’s senior vice president of user experience. He expects the bot to be out sometime this year.

In spring 2016, ADP announced it had a chatbot in the works that could send announcements of open jobs to prospective candidates or remind employees to use accrued vacation time. A company spokesperson wouldn’t provide details beyond saying the payroll giant may test an early version of the service with some clients in 2017, with the goal of rolling out a fully functional, self-service version next year.

Any company that uses a chatbot will eventually have to decide if they’re going to tell job applicants or employees that the nice person they’re talking to is in fact not a person at all. For now, TextRecruit and Crowded aren’t calling out the fact that tips on job leads are coming from a bot.

“I think everyone’s going to take a different approach,” Schwartz said. “Some will say, ‘This is X company’s bot,’ and some will pretend it’s a human being.”

Michelle V. Rafter is a business journalist in Portland, Oregon, reporting on workforce and tech for Talent Economy and other publications. If you have a comment or a column idea for her, email editor@talenteconomy.io.