When we think about Human Resources, it’s important to hone in on the word “human,” which implies empathy, understanding and caring. In an HR context, we expect a compassionate response, a helping attitude and a problem-solving mentality.

HR professionals are known for these characteristics, but unfortunately, they are often stretched thin in their roles. Despite their best efforts, many HR specialists simply do not have time to provide personalized service to every employee. To change this situation and make improvements in HR departments, company executives might assume that they need to hire more staff and spend more on programs.

However, I believe there is a more sustainable approach. It might sound counter-intuitive, but Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help, and open up new avenues for companies to relate to their employees.

Businesses should invest in technology that offers personalization and responsiveness because those are the things people look for in a company. We want to feel connected to our employers, and we want to believe our company cares about us on a personal level – that any time we need support and assistance, it’s always there for us.

I find that employees don’t contact their HR departments very often with policy or other company questions; they either refer to a manual, or try to find answers on an intranet. This is a classic example of an opportunity for a digital cognitive agent to enhance the employee experience and act as a personal concierge for interfacing with your company.

The personalization aspect is the key. For that reason, it is important to differentiate between a cognitive agent and a chatbot. Let’s say I want to know how many days off I have accrued, so I ask a chatbot:

Me: “How many vacation days do I have?”

Chatbot: “20.”

Me: “I’d like to take a couple of days off. I’m feeling under the weather.”

At this point, the chatbot has no idea what I just said. If it were Alexa, it would probably rattle off the current temperature. But that’s not what I want. Not only did I not get an answer, I also did not get a compassionate response. Now, let’s look at the same conversation with Amelia, our digital colleague:

Me: “How many vacation days do I have?”

Amelia: “Hi Jonathan, you have 20 days left. Would you like to request time off?”

Me: “Yes, I’m feeling under the weather.”

Amelia: “I’m sorry that you’re not feeling well. Is there anything I could do to help?”

At this point, Amelia’s natural language capabilities and emotional quotient (EQ) allow her to respond as a human would.

Because I’m human, I also have other things on my mind. While requesting PTO, I might take the opportunity to inquire about my 401k, or check the status of an expense report. Or I just found out that my wife and I are expecting a baby and I have a question about the paternity leave policy.

A chatbot has the ability to respond to certain narrow questions. It’s not going to be able to migrate to another subject on-the-fly. It’s not going to have deep contextual knowledge. Most important, it’s not going to have empathy.

This scenario dovetails with the two elements that are so important with Amelia in particular and cognitive technology in general. One, the technology needs to be more human, meaning it can understand and empathize. Two, it needs to be more personal.

This is a change in mindset for a modern HR department. With cognitive technology, we are opening a conversation on intelligence, contextual awareness and empathy, and integrating all of these things into relationships with the employees. I look forward to more and more companies adopting this approach.