The employee communications bots are coming. Chat with me if you want to live.

I mentioned in a recent post that I had my first conversation with an artificial intelligence (AI) named Eliza during the 80s, when the greatest exposure most of us had to AI was at the movies. (Bonus points if you can name the movie I referenced in the subtitle to this post). Today, you can find AI in the form of chatbots popping up everywhere, from the operating system of your mobile phone and Facebook Messenger to web sites and, very soon, in the business communicator’s toolbox.

Chatbots are limited AI applications that are typically text based and designed to handle very basic inquiries about a well-defined body of knowledge, using plain-language (or nearly so) to have something that resembles a human conversation. Companies are already using chatbots for a wide variety of tasks, from customer service to technical support and even teen fashion advice.

Any new technology is, unfortunately, often met with skepticism by business communications professionals (especially those of us of, ahem, a certain age), and chatbots are no exception. While some communications thought leaders are diving in with both feet, (thank you, Shel Holtz) the vast majority of us working in internal communications are still typing away, creating employee newsletters and curating intranet content to be hosted on SharePoint version 44 B.C.

As they did with social media, the marketing department is off and running with chatbot technology, and it’s time for internal communicators to catch up. The question is, how can communications professionals leverage this technology in the workplace? To help you get your creative juices flowing, here are a seven ideas of how to use chatbots to improve employee communications.

 Self-service technical support. You don’t need a sophisticated trouble ticket tracking system to find out what your IT team is spending most of its time doing. If you walk down the hall to your techies' cave and ask, they’ll probably tell you there day is more often than not about password resets, access requests for limited use applications or databases, and adding or deleting email users as employees enter and leave the organization. Imagine if your employees could send the message “how do I reset my password?” and get linked right to the article or phone number they need to call.

By the way, if you think this is an IT problem rather than an employee communications problem, look at the company reviews on Glassdoor or just ask at the coffee machine the next time you are waiting for your computer to re-start. You might be surprised how many employees leave their employers in part because of frustrations with dealing with IT. This is especially critical for virtual or remote working teams who don’t have the luxury to visit an office help desk or the time to wait on hold. IT support issues may not be a "top ten" driver of turnover at your company, but any opportunity to improve communication between IT and its clients is always worth pursuing.

Benefits inquiries. I’m currently working with a medium-sized (300 employee) local health care client who is interested in saving time for both employees and their very small HR team by scripting a bot to answer the top ten benefits coverage, enrollment and eligibility questions that they receive. While that may not sound particularly ambitious, consider this: They estimate they will get up to six hours a week of their HR manager’s life back per week, and might be able to avoid having to bring on an HR intern in the fall to help handle open enrollment. That’s some pretty serious cost and time savings.

Meeting concierge. I’m waiting for the day when I can attend a large internal meeting or professional conference where the information desk is accessible to me 24/7 on my smart phone. Asking “where can I get my ID badge?”, “where is Jane Smith speaking?” or “when does the Friday plenary session start?” at any time of the day or night would be a serious value add, especially when navigating large trade shows or employee meetings featuring a large number of concurrent sessions spread over several locations. Watch for a smart meetings and events agency to jump on this one and offer it as a popular markup service for their corporate and professional society clients.

Performance management goal mapper. Creating a clear line of sight between an individual's day-to-day work and company strategy is a frequent goal for employee engagement programs. A chatbot allowing employees to ask about the goals of their department, division or even the CEO could not only create better alignment for goal setting, but also increase transparency and accountability at all levels of the organization. Plus it creates a more interesting way to access the information than creating a SharePoint page that no one will ever visit or series of videos that no has time to watch.

Corporate newsbot. Quartz and Tangowork, among others, both have offerings that demonstrate the potential for delivering news in a way that is interactive, mobile, and potentially even interesting using a chat interface. As we enter the post-static intranet era of employee communications, where centralized, hosted corporate content is giving way to social solutions and conversations, more and more app-based solutions are springing up. Chatbots are a logical next step in exploring the possibilities of social corporate news.

Content repository navigator. Chatbots are a compelling potential alternative to wading through intranet pages or collaborative sites looking for the right thought leadership piece, sales collateral or case study. And of the possibilities of connecting your CRM system to a bot so that your sales force can ask, “Do we do any business with natural gas providers in Uruguay?” and get a meaningful answer in seconds. This is such a natural for law firms and other professional services that I would be honestly surprised if content management system and search engine vendors for these industries weren’t looking into chatbot applications already.

Onboarding facilitator. While LinkedIn’s Lookup app is an adequate tool to help you network within your organization, you still have to do a lot of the hard work in making connections through manual search. Any bot that can help search behind the scenes and tell me about organizational structures, history, who to ask about getting enrolled in benefits or other programs, or even suggest to me people who share my expertise in other offices of a large company would be a welcome part of my next onboarding experience.

The ultimate cost-benefit justification for creating a chatbot is the same as for any well-implemented employee communications tool: Help employees spend less time seeking the information they need and more time doing their jobs. With the amount of third-party tool integration available and no-coding bot making frameworks now available, there’s no time like the present to be building the future of automated employee communications. 

These are just a few ideas that I am sure have been thought of by others already - along with a bunch of even more interesting and creative applications. I'm just putting these out there to get the creative juices flowing so we can all start thinking about our own projects. 

What sort of chatbot do you think would work well in your company?