Venture Beat

Bots can train employees better than you can

Don’t tell your favorite grade school teacher, but bots are infinitely more patient instructors that are willing to offer assistance and information for as long and as often as they’re needed.

That’s one reason big-time education advocates such as Bill Gates are so excited by the possibilities of AI, but it has major implications in the workplace, too.

Talla, a Boston-area startup, has created a bot that can do many of the routine tasks normally performed by an HR department, such as distributing surveys, gathering data, and even training employees. Sound far-fetched? Such bots are actually more common than many people might realize: 80 percent of companies currently rely on bot-enabled communication tools like Slack and HipChat.

Sure, bots can assume busywork and enable better interoffice communication, but a bot’s true power lies in its educational capabilities.

For many, this vision of the future might seem like a nightmare in which reliable humans are replaced by annoying chatbots that cause more problems than they solve. However, this pessimism is caught up in antiquated notions of what a bot can be, which are not helped by the chatbots encountered in apps such as Facebook Messenger.

In reality, a well-designed, well-implemented bot won’t replace employees, but it can empower them. Last spring, Georgia Tech hired a teaching assistant named Jill Watson. Jill helped the professor by answering any questions students had outside of class, and the students loved her, even if she was only available online.

There was a reason for that: Jill was actually an advanced chatbot. When students found out at the end of the semester, they were blown away. While an ordinary chatbot won’t necessarily pass the Turing test, this example shows just how far chatbots have come and how useful they can be as teachers.

Here are three ways messaging bots can improve employee training and development.

1. Act like a favorite teacher

Good teachers do more than answer questions. They also know how to ask students the right questions, framing those questions in ways designed to pique curiosity about a subject and rewarding students when they excel. A good bot can do the same.

When employees enter online training sessions, use bots to pose intriguing questions and place conversations in a context that provokes real enthusiasm. At my company, for example, we use bots to tell riddles to our developers to present a stimulating challenge.

After lessons are completed, use bots to reward trainees with fun digital images that serve as virtual badges and hearty congratulations, much like the gold star stickers teachers place on students’ tests. To motivate employees to keep learning, use a bot to create a leaderboard, keep a personal tally for each student, and chart everyone’s progress.

Although the gamification of training might sound silly, it gives employees tangible reinforcement: acknowledgement of a job well done. Recognition has been shown to be an excellent way to drive individual performance, which is why so many personal endeavors — from physical fitness to email management — have already been gamified.

2. Pinpoint and fill knowledge gaps

Continued education is vital for any skilled position, and bots are well-equipped to help employees stay up-to-date on the latest technologies and methodologies in their fields.

Design your bots to help employees assess their own weak spots. Approach this from a no-pressure standpoint. It shouldn’t be about employees getting certain scores. Instead, design your bots so that when employees are asked a question, they can tell you whether they understand the concept. This way, they’re aware of what they need to work on and you know what concepts you need to reinforce as a company.

If employees don’t know where to start when prompted with a question, program the bot to immediately respond with additional resources. A digital network called OUR Walmart, which is composed of more than 100,000 employees, uses IBM’s Watson AI abilities to match employees’ questions with existing training materials. Then, have your bot ask the same question a week later to track progress.

3. Increase the retention of information

Employees won’t realistically remember every single thing they learned during their initial training; it’s how we work as humans. We learn something the first time; then, without repetition, we slowly begin to lose that knowledge. However, if we’re reminded within a particular cycle — and then reminded again within a longer cycle — we’re much more likely to retain it in the long term.

Why not use a bot to manage and automate this process? Design your bots to deploy refresher courses periodically during the initial training period and beyond.

Computer learning can be up to 50 percent more effective than in-person training because bots allow employees to revisit lessons as many times as they need to — at their convenience and on their own terms. For example, let’s say you want to focus on functional programming practices and JavaScript for 12 weeks. Program your bot to engage those teammates over that time period, working around their schedules and allowing them to repeat tutorials as needed.

Properly designed and implemented chatbots can empower employees to become more self-sufficient and skilled at what they do. It’s a win-win scenario for employees and management. Chatbots aren’t here to frustrate and annoy; they’re here to help — you just have to be willing to let them.

Kuty Shalev is the founder of Clevertech, a New York City-based firm that designs, develops, and deploys strategic software for businesses.