How Microsoft’s HR team is using AI to save over 20,000 hours per year

March 4, 2024
In a recent trip to Australia, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, HR & Corporate Functions, Amy Coleman, sat down with HRM to discuss how the tech giant’s HR team is utilising AI to save valuable time.

When Amy Coleman, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, HR & Corporate Functions, thinks about what it meant to work in HR 20 years ago, she’s struck by the vast ways in which the role has changed.

“It’s very different now… now we’re trying to help shape how employees are thinking and feeling, [and determining] the right people strategies,” she told HRM on a recent visit to Australia from the US.

A huge part of the change in HR’s remit is the integration of technology with HR’s work. This is an exciting opportunity, says Coleman, as it means HR professionals are not only privy to but leading strategic conversations, and helping take their organisations into new directions with the help of powerful technology. Here’s how the Microsoft HR team is doing just that.

How the Microsoft HR team is using AI

Coleman feels lucky that she works in an environment where she gets to use technology as part of her HR practices each day.

“I really understand that it’s a privilege to work at a tech company. I get to use technology to help enhance the humanity that our HR team brings.”

Microsoft’s HR team has been able to save over 20,000+ hours since an AI HR chatbot entered its workflow around 12 months ago.

“Every question [for HR] goes into a funnel,” says Coleman. “At the very end of that funnel is self-service [based on an internal database]. An employee might want to take a leave of absence, for example. They’ll type that in and get access to a policy. 

“We want to push as many people as possible to have a really good employee experience at that self-service level,” she says.

This means the HR team isn’t getting bogged down in sourcing and relaying the same information over and over again.

“We want to focus on the things that take emotional intelligence, judgement and humanity to do.” – Amy Coleman, Corporate VP, HR and Corporate Services, Microsoft

As employees’ questions become more complex, so too does the technology solution.

“Say you want to take a sabbatical and you’re also getting ready to go on maternity leave, so it’s a bit more of a compounded problem. You might be able to get some of the information from our internal site, but perhaps you can’t get everything you need, or you need to validate your findings. That’s when you go into the second level of the funnel.”

This is where Microsoft’s AI-enabled HR chatbot is introduced.

“This is like a virtual assistant that can start to reference some of our policies. I know a lot of industries have had these types of chatbots for a long time now – like in the airline or travel sectors. But we’re continually investing in ours to help it really [understand] the person who is asking the question.”

The idea is that future iterations of this technology should be able to offer bespoke responses based on information in the employee’s profile. For example, say an employee wants to work part-time for a period and is seeking information about the financial implications of doing so. The chatbot could be trained on that employee’s data set, so it could provide bespoke information based on that person’s current salary.

The third stage of the funnel is where Microsoft applies both human HR expertise with AI.

“If you weren’t able to get an answer to your question at stages one or two, now you talk to someone in HR and we then look at how those people can apply AI to answer your question faster and give you the right information.

“We’re trying to make it as personalised as possible and as accurate as possible – take some of the human error out of it and allow the HR professional who’s interacting with you to be more about [having] empathy and an understanding of the context.”

Reinvesting time into leadership development

With the time that has been freed up by using this technology, Coleman says the HR team is reinvesting in high-value HR tasks, such as coaching leaders. 

“So let’s say that employee now has information about their sabbatical, maternity leave and pay. Now the HR team might step in to support with setting up a coverage plan with their manager. So helping out in more of a leadership development or coaching manner. We want to focus on the things that take emotional intelligence, judgement and humanity to do. 

“So if I think about where I’d tell my HR team to spend their time, I would be asking, ‘How do we get our leaders and managers to help us scale [our HR initiatives]?’ We have somewhere around 20,000-25,000 managers at Microsoft. That’s an opportunity for HR to be coaching at that management and leadership level to help us drive responses around how we deal with change.

“If we get great leaders who can help us move and lead through a transformation or learn how to utilise adaptive skills or show empathy… that’s where we’ll meet our magic.”

When you think of adaptive, empathetic leadership, many minds would turn to Microsoft’s own CEO, Satya Nadella.

When speaking at the AFR’s Workforce Summit last week, Coleman spoke of the cultural transformation that Nadella brought to Microsoft’s culture through his focus on growth mindset, encouragement of experimentation and “personal leadership at scale”.

He’s humble, relatable and embraces two-way dialogue with employees, says Coleman.

“We were really intentional with Microsoft’s cultural transformation. We have cultural lessons that we’re always trying to reflect on and learn from. And personal leadership at scale is something we want to take with us,” she says.

This important work is where she sees HR adding value.

“We want our leaders to connect with people in really authentic ways, to create followership and to [understand employees’] perspectives. I think that’s super important, whether you’re leading a project team or you’re the CEO.”

Another key piece of cultural work that Microsoft’s HR team is now freed up to focus on is embedding a growth mindset in its leaders.

“Part of that is about learning to say what you don’t know. How can we help leaders who’ve been trained and educated to need to know everything to feel okay about not knowing something.

“Sitting in that [vulnerable] space can be really hard for leaders, so we need to have empathy for that and help them.”

Source: GWFM Research & Study

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