How to set up a digital assistant project without scaring away staff


Instead of making employees fear losing their jobs, get their buy-in on the project. The digital employee can help them with their work.

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The success of any IT project—including the implementation of a digital assistant or employee, starts with good design. And good design of any process that is integral to the business depends on end users who know the process and who actively participate.

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At the same time, executing a collaborative design process for digital assistants can become even more complicated because 37% of employees in the 18-24 year old age group alone see artificial intelligence (AI) and robots as imminent threats to their jobs.

“As digital natives, [18- to 24-year-old workers] understand the potential of technology to have a positive impact. But with 30 or 40 years left in the workforce, they likely envision vast potential changes in the nature of work over the course of their lifetimes,” said Laura Wronski, senior research scientist at SurveyMonkey .

If you are a project manager for a digital assistant or employee project, you have to be concerned about employee resistance and anxiety, and know how you’re going to overcome these.

Get a good digital employee design

If you are the project manager, you already know that how well your project does will depend on how well the digital assistant can perform the tasks that you want it to do. The go-to people for describing the tasks that the digital assistant should perform and how these tasks should be done, are the employees themselves who are doing them.

“One way you can overcome initial employee fears and resistance is to involve them in the project,” said Danny Tomsett, CEO of Uneeq, which provides AI chatbots.

SEE: Natural language processing: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Tomsett described one company that organized a workshop in which it asked its employees which tasks they would like to eliminate so they could focus on the real work that they wanted to do.

“What the employees identified were all of the tasks that they wished they didn’t have to do, because the tasks were non-value-added and repetitive,” Tomsett said.

This approach accomplished two things:

  • It put employees at ease, because they weren’t sitting at their desks not knowing what would happen and waiting for a secret door to open with a digital assistant emerging that would take their jobs.
  • It gave employees the chance to “farm out” tasks they didn’t want to do because the tasks were non-productive.

Focus on very specific use cases

There are so many variables and unknowns when it comes to dealing with business situations and human behavior that it’s important not to try to do too much when you are implementing digital assistants.

One industry where digital assistants are delivering benefits is healthcare. In the post-operative stage of patient care, when patients are at home recovering from an operation, they can forget the regimes that their doctors have asked them to follow and the medications that they are supposed to be taking.

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“Let’s say the patient has 10 different prescriptions he is supposed to be taking but little ability to access his care provider when he has a question,” Tomsett said. “If the patient calls a digital assistant with a question, the digital assistant can be trained up to take the question.”

For example, the patient can begin a conversation by saying he isn’t feeling well. The digital assistant can express empathy by saying, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At the same time, the digital assistant can check patient records and go through a script that asks the patient the same types of questions a medical practitioner would ask, such as, “Have you taken all of your medications today?” or “Have you checked your blood pressure?”

Use cases like this work because they are tightly focused, making it easier to develop anticipated sets of questions and responses.

Three things to remember with digital assistants

  1. It’s best to create digital assistants and robotic use cases “from the ground up,” with the employees who perform these functions defining tasks and how they should be handled.
  2. The reach of any one use case shouldn’t be too broad. The use case should address a small operational area that contains a limited number of questions and responses.
  3. For digital assistants to succeed with the help of the employees whose tasks they will be doing, employees need to buy into the process without a fear of losing their jobs.

Job loss fears are a real issue

Several years ago, a credit union CEO I knew was restructuring his organization, and employees were either losing their jobs or getting reassigned to new roles and departments. “What we were telling employees was that what we were doing wasn’t personal—it just made sense,” he said.

The strategy made so much sense that the credit union experienced the largest employee churn rate in its 30 year history.

Situations like this are what digital assistant champions and project managers must avoid if they are to succeed in their digital employee initiatives.

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