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Chatbots: the coming force, but what can they do for L&D?

Recently we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the kind of technology customers will want from us in the future.  Something that comes up repeatedly is the subject of bots. Last year Forbes magazine published an article entitled ‘Chatbots Will Be Your New Best Friend’.  

So, what are they, and how will they impact your day-to-day working environment in 5 years (or maybe 5 months) and can they really be Learning and Development’s best friend?Well, you could try asking one to tell you.  

So, what’s a chatbot?

At its simplest, a chatbot is a computer program that engages the user in a conversation, either through text or speech.  You ask the question, the chatbot replies.  You’ll see examples all over the internet from customer queries to voice-recognition searches.

There are really two types of chatbots.  The basic ones work according to a set of rules.  They respond to set commands, but try and go beyond those and they won’t work.  The more advanced chatbots use machine learning, employing Artificial Intelligence.  

This means they learn from each interaction or conversation, detecting preferences and making recommendations based on past requests.

OK, but what can they do for me?

They say it’s good to talk and chatbots reflect the way we increasingly use technology.  When we post or message, we expect a response, often immediately.  

When we use Netflix or Amazon, we know that it remembers our previous choices and points us in the direction of future ones.  We want our technology to engage with us.  We want a dialogue.

And that’s where chatbots make a difference. When you go into a high-street store, there’s an assistant to help you. With chatbots, there’s the potential to have that same experience when you shop online.  

It can ask you what you’re looking for, you tell it and it makes recommendations.  The chatbot adds the personal (and personalized) touch.

But bots are not just about better online shopping.  There are bots to get the weather, bots to alert you of news you’re interested in, bots offering financial advice, and even ones to help with life matters.

In China, there is a Microsoft bot called Xiaoice that is a companion to millions of regular users.

Isn’t there already an app for that?

In a sense chatbots are the new apps.  And what’s more chatbots can ‘live’ inside other apps that your learners are used to.  So, you don’t even need to create a new interface for users to learn.  

For example, you can embed a knowledge bot within an existing app to help users find information that might otherwise be hard to find within the app. Imagine having a chatbot within a help desk app to act as the first line of response to incoming requests.

The bot could resolve simple issues and then hand over more complex issues to a real person.

But don’t just take our word for it, try one yourself

There’s a lot to be said for learning by doing, so why not engage with a bot.  Here are some bots we’ve tried and liked.

Amazon’s Alexa responds to speech commands and requests.  You can use it for making to-do lists, setting alarms, controlling your other smart devices, giving you news and traffic reports, playing and streaming music, audio books, podcasts and a whole host of other things.  

But, critically, in doing all that Alexa is learning from your choices.

Or, if you’re thinking of going abroad and fancy learning a little of the local language, try Duolingo.  The Duolingo bot can teach you the basics via your PC or mobile device in just a few minutes every day.  

It’s like having your own tutor, in your own home or office.  It recognises what you already know, identifies where you need help and practice, rewards and encourages you, and sets you targets.  In short, it’s learning about you and what you need, while you are learning.  

What do Chatbots offer Learning and Development?

So, if there are chatbots for so many areas of our lives, why not use them in L&D?  One of the key things about chatbots is their presence and accessibility.  They’re there for us when and where we need them.  

Search engines are already responding to questions more efficiently, taking into account our location and our previous search requests.  But there’s still a stretch from efficiency (finding information quickly) to effectiveness (learning to improve performance) and from accessing information to applying it.  

We said that bots can fit inside apps, well think of chatbots sitting inside the workflow, helping us do our job while we’re doing it.  

Classroom and online training are fine, but they tend to happen in isolation, away from the job.  When you’ve a task at hand, it’s hard to recall that exact piece of training that applies right there and then.  

A chatbot with access to that training can be there with you, supporting you, even advising you in the way a trainer might, but without you leaving your desk or interrupting your task.

Chatbots are not passive sources of information, but active assistants that can improve access to the knowledge that you need.  They allow you to learn and build on what you already know.  

And critically the chatbot can be learning too, meaning it’s becoming more effective as a training and information tool.  Chatbots offer the prospect of more targeted, just-in-time learning and enhanced performance support.

A chatbot can be a mentor who’s there for you when you need one.

A chatbot as your new best friend?

Well, maybe you might learn to think so.  But if you think that having a chatbot as a friend may be stretching it just a little bit, then think of a chatbot as a personal assistant working for you and helping you work and learn better.

artificial intelligence
learning and development

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