Among the buzz about new HR technologies, most miss what may literally become the most important shift — the death of narrative text. Yes, every other business function is already shifting to a post-text communications world that is dominated by video and voice. Of course, it’s no secret that since day one, HR has been providing information to employees and managers almost exclusively through written documents. But that approach needs to change and fast. The world of internet and mobile communications are now dominated by video, pictures, and information provided via an interactive voice. This inevitable shift has been powered by the popularity of YouTube, Alexa/Siri, chatbots, emojis, podcasts, memes, smartphone apps, video games, webcasts, and social media videos and vines. Even the text-laden book is now being supplemented with audiobook options. Each of these increasingly more popular communication modes are capable of providing more powerful and better received information, without the written word.
Communications preferences have shifted away from the written narrative
Surveys reveal, and many have written about how new generations love almost any alternative to the written word. And, even our President refuses to read multipage documents, he instead prefers information provided by voice and video.
This new reality should be a wake-up call to HR that loves to communicate through long written narratives. In a multitasking world, reading words requires 100% of your attention, while the alternative podcast can be listened to while driving and walking. Reading online text documents can be tedious to read on the always present smartphone screen. While in direct contrast, asking your HR questions on your phone through a voice-activated chabot and gaining information through lively videos and podcasts can be much more engaging and effective.
What does a post-text hr world look like?
For legal reasons, HR will obviously want to maintain its repository of written documents. But if it wants to get and maintain the attention of managers and employees, it must begin to offer a range of easier to digest voice and video alternatives. I predict that these non-text options, categorized into the different functional areas of HR will include:
Training – Compared to reading, videos are a much more realistic and engaging way to learn. In the post-text world, videos and their cousins — augmented virtual reality and virtual reality simulations — will provide more realistic and interactive learning (the US Army and commercial pilot training already excel at this). These videos can be animated, made with a smartphone or they can be merely referenced and then streamed from YouTube or the Khan Academy. Video games can also be used to excite and instruct new generations of employees and applicants that fully embrace them. And because we learn with all of our senses, eventually videos and video games will include sight, sound, vibrations and even smell.
Recruiting – Because recruiting is a form of sales, it makes sense to use a variety of media to attract and sell candidates. Video job descriptions and hiring manager welcoming videos have already proven to be extremely compelling. And “day in the life” and facility tour videos allow a candidate to experience what an employee does. In addition, the US Army has been using a chatbot to answer questions and a video game to sell its excitement for nearly a decade. Unfortunately, most corporate recruiting websites are dominated by long narratives and most don’t offer podcasts, mobile phone apps or voice-activated 24/7 digital assistant like responses.
Benefit questions — Benefits are the highest volume area where employees seek HR answers. Once again, chatbots can provide standard answers to benefit related questions that are provided verbally from an employee’s mobile phone. And when the questions get too complicated, employees can automatically be transferred to a human. Machine learning algorithms can also alert benefits professionals to emerging new questions, as well as the most effective answers that can be rated by the user using smiley-face emojis.
Providing policy information – Rather than having to read a complete policy document, in the post-text world managers and employees will ask questions about policies via their mobile phone, like you now do with Alexa or Siri. A chatbot-like digital assistant will answer them verbally, while also offering videos as an option. Machine learning driven algorithms will inform the employee about related information that others have also searched (like Amazon’s recommendation algorithm). Of course, the information provided will be personalized to the employee’s function, business unit, and geographic region.
Manager decision-making – Without having to consult with an HR professional, managers will be able to use their smartphone to access decision trees that cover their current problem area. A chatbot will walk them through the recommended problem-solving steps and answer questions whenever they arise. Current relevant data will also be automatically provided to support the recommended steps. Decision tree modules will be available for hiring, retention, discipline, sexual harassment, firing, layoffs and other common but complicated people management problem areas. Rather than going through complicated classroom training, where they will forget most of the material, managers will be updated just-in-time when a real problem actually occurs.
Global communications – In a global world, it’s essential that you provide information to your employees, managers and applicants in a variety of relevant languages. With machine learning applications, it’s now possible to instantly offer language options or translations in HR videos, digital assistants, and podcasts.
Onboarding – Processes like onboarding will be fully automated. However, rather than relying primarily on narrative text, they will provide options for video, podcasts, and virtual reality onboarding. Once again, the information provided will be automatically customized to the new-hire’s job and their business unit.
Feedback – In addition to standard 360° verbiage, feedback can be provided using emojis, short employee videos and memes.
Coaching – Rather than relying exclusively on humans, digital assistants can provide relevant direction and coaching advice to employees and managers using the spoken word or vines and longer videos.
Automated search – New technology already allows you to search both audio and video as easily as text. ComScore predicts that by the year 2020 as many as half of all searches will be done by voice. And because a picture can be worth a thousand words, HR will make technology available, similar to Google picture search. Where employees will be able to search company archives to find relevant pictures or to identify faces. A database of emoji’s will also be available for the quickest of all communications.
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HR action steps
The most important first step is for HR to recognize that rather than communicating how it prefers, a superior approach is to communicate in the way the audience prefers. HR’s target audience of employees, managers, and applicants already prefer alternative modes of communication. And, although the written word will never go 100% away, there needs to be a continuous shift to communication approaches that data proves to be more effective and welcome.
The second important step is personalization. Where HR must learn to tailor its communications as much as possible to the unique needs of the individual and the business unit. Generic communications in any form just don’t have as high an impact as customized ones.
The third step is to provide options covering the length of the provided communication, where employees are offered “nuggets of information” that fit the time block they have available to listen and learn.
Fourth, it’s also important to realize that the mobile phone will dominate sending and receiving information. So whatever communications are provided, they will have to be optimized for the mobile platform.
The final step involves developing metrics and surveys that continually inform HR leaders about the best modes for successfully communicating. The best modes will be continually evolving as new technologies developed.
Many in HR who have a focus on compliance will argue against this shift away from written narratives because that approach allows for the covering of every painful detail. However, if these lengthily written narratives are only scanned or never even read, the only purpose they serve is covering HR’s butt. Shorter and more exciting videos and podcasts offer the added advantage in that they can be listened to when you are walking or waiting. And within videos and audio it is important to remember that there is always an option for providing a hyperlink to a lengthy written document.
If your focus is on providing information that is heard, viewed and acted upon, it’s time to begin a major shift toward voice-activated responses, videos, podcasts, and even emojis. Most of your firm’s marketing and customer relations functions have likely already made this shift, so once again HR has some catching up to do.
Some will note the irony that is created because this piece about a post-text world is only available in 100% text. But I would project that in the future ERE Media will offer its information in many formats including podcasts, video and condensed versions that can be read in whatever number of minutes that the reader has available.
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