AI sentiment analysis system helps gauge employees' feelings

Based on the Xander AI platform, Ultimate Software's Perception system guides Valvoline corporate franchisee in gauging employees' feelings about workplace issues.

For a company that owns 170 Valvoline outlets across the country, AI sentiment analysis software is fueling insight into, and changes in, work processes for both the field workers who do oil changes and home office staff in a Boston suburb.

Henley Enterprises, in Newton, Mass., the largest corporate franchisee of Valvoline, was an early adopter of what Ultimate Software now calls Perception, an AI sentiment analysis system that was quietly released in September 2016.

When Ultimate introduced Perception's underlying AI platform, Xander, in October 2017 with considerable fanfare as one of the first commercially available AI-powered HR technology systems from a major vendor, it also publicly unveiled Perception and gave it its own name.

Henley had also already been using Ultimate's UltiPro suite of human capital management tools, and Perception integrates into that system.

Surveying employees' feelings

Perception uses pulse-style surveys about workplace issues, deploying machine language algorithms and a big data storehouse to parse text responses for employees' feelings and respond with moves to boost employee engagement.

[Perception is] reinforcing not only what people say, but also what they really need.
Anie ChinarianHenley Enterprises

One of the features is a "word cloud," representing the array of words and phrases employees use about an issue and the words' emotional connotations.

"I'm a kind of intuitive person. I believe it's reinforcing not only what people say, but also what they really need," said self-described nontechie Anie Chinarian, vice president of HR at Henley.

So far, Chinarian said uptake of Perception among the company's 2,000 or so employees has been fast, and Henley is confident that the software can help stimulate engagement and provide actionable data to improve the employee experience.

The AI sentiment analysis software is intuitive and requires little training for managers to create and distribute quick surveys, Chinarian said. For a business like Valvoline's, in which much of the work takes place in a garage, workers tend to be on a smartphone more often than on a computer, and they go to the UltiPro mobile app to find the survey link.

Henley was able to make immediate changes based on employee responses to a key survey distributed after the company started using the software in September 2017.

Employees care most about work-life balance

That survey was about the Workplace culture of the office and support team in the corporate headquarters in Massachusetts.

"We wanted to get a survey and get some feedback about how folks felt about working in our environment and were there any opportunities for improving that team member experience," Chinarian said.

"And, in fact, we got some very actionable information. It was very easy to do the reports and cut the data in different ways," she said.

The issue that jumped out was work-life balance and elements of the benefits package that supported that.

"It reinforced that work-life balance was something that was valued by our office and support team members. [The survey results] kind of cinched it for us," Chinarian said.

In response, Henley added three personal holidays and more vacation time for employees.

When Henley announced the changes and said they were a result of the survey, "there was a lot of positive feedback," she said. "It was our way of making sure there was some two-way communication and then act upon that."

New employees surveyed

Another way Henley has used Perception is in the field, with a "welcome survey" for new employees after their 15th day on the job, which is automatically scheduled in Perception.

"We designed a survey that basically asked, 'Is this what you thought it was going to be?'" Chinarian said. "Is the experience you had during the selection, interviewing and agreeing to be our team member process -- have we delivered on our commitment?"

Henley emphasizes a team approach, and it looks to hire people who like working with others and customers and who feel comfortable on their feet in the field. But the company also acknowledges that jobs in Valvoline shops can be tough, Chinarian said.

Perception is first commercial product for Xander

Armen BerjiklyArmen Berjikly

Technologically, Perception -- and Xander -- grew out of Ultimate's acquisition in 2016 of Kanjoya, a workforce intelligence software company founded by Armen Berjikly, now senior director of strategy at Ultimate.

Perception is Ultimate's first commercial product derived from Xander, which Berjikly described in an interview as a "collection of data science, natural language processing, AI and machine learning tools."

"It's not a product in and of itself," Berjikly said. "It's an engine that we could potentially plug in to Ultimate's existing products as we sort of refresh and renew them over time as we generally do or create brand new products."

It's an AI environment that Ultimate hopes is humanized and will distinguish Xander from HR tech competitors by focusing more on thoughts, emotions and feelings than on automation or traditional business analytics.

As AI sentiment analysis tools, Xander and Perception also sit atop nearly a decade of anonymized data about employees' emotions gathered by Kanjoya and Perception -- another factor Ultimate sees as a big selling point.

Softer side of HR tech

Berjikly said Ultimate's approach with AI is to focus on the "touchy-feely." He argued that the softer aspects of talent management and organizational culture are as important as hard business metrics. Those things are what Xander and Perception are designed to provide around employee engagement and experience.

"We need to approach human challenges with human intentionality," Berjikly said. "You can't solve a problem without accounting for how someone feels."

"How can we possibly ask our tools, our solutions, our products, to take that same challenge on and yet only say to them, 'OK, tools, your only inputs are salary and tenure, and good luck?'" Berjikly said.

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