Philips looks to artificial intelligence to train its workforce

Healthcare company is looking to AI, chatbots and learning playlists to help staff learn new skills more quickly as it adapts changing business priorities

Dutch healthcare company Royal Philips is turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help its 74,000 employees update their skills and knowledge, as the company moves from being a supplier of health products to health services.

The company, which has revenues of €18bn, has reinvented itself from a lighting and consumer electronics company into a specialist in medical imaging and health informatics.

Peter Meerman, director of global learning solutions at Philips, said investing in learning technology for its employees would help the company change more quickly.

“We are changing from a company with a wide industrial scope, to health,” he said. “We are changing from selling products to selling solutions, from analogue technology to digital. The challenge is how we can support the acceleration of those changes.”

Philips is working with Cornerstone, which provides cloud-based learning and HR (human resources) software to test how AI can improve online learning.

The technology will be able to recommend courses and learning packages, tailored to the needs of each employee, that will allow them to reach the “next skill level”, said Meerman.

“We are working with Cornerstone to make sure the results generated are as realistic as possible,” he told Computer Weekly. “We don’t want to it to make strange recommendations.”.

Learning ‘playlists’

The company is evaluating technology that will enable staff to create their own training programmes, where they see a gap.

They will be able to use Philips’ own learning materials, or other relevant training material, and compile it into “playlists” to share with other employees.

“If I am a sales expert in the company and I feel there is something missing in the training programme, I can create a playlist,” said Meerman. “Maybe it could include a video, or short e-learning course, or a bunch of questions and answers, or some situations from real life.”

Philips also plans to use learning technology to link employees directly to more experienced members of staff who can act as teachers or mentors, without needing to go through a formal learning programme.

In another project, the company is piloting a tool from Assima that provides instructions and guidance to staff as they are using a software package, without them having to leave the package or launch another programme.

Turning leaders into teachers

Philips is developing a learning strategy that will encourage leaders and line managers, and experts in particular subjects, to teach other people in the organisation. They will play a more active role in people development in the future, said Meerman.

“You send a signal when you put a leader in front of a training session,” he said. “They bring a lot of credibility. We have leaders who are very passionate and we want them to share their expertise and knowledge.”

The aim of the programme is to create a “learning culture” within Philips, said Meerman. pointing out that companies with a learning culture perform better, according to research.

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But measuring the impact of training on the company’s performance is more difficult. Philips plans to keep track of how many staff visit the learning platform, how much training they take and how much training material they make.

In the longer term, it may be possible to measure whether there is any correlation between training and high-performing individuals in the company, said Meerman.

“When we have sufficient data, we can ask whether there is a relationship between high-performance sales people and how much training they do,” he said, “whether they are the ones creating playlists and learning nuggets, and are consuming training in the way we expect.”

One important principle will be for Philips to offer training not just to its own employees, but to 10,000 people who work as contractors, or for the firm’s business partners, he added. “They might be potential employees – they might have very deep skills in the areas we are looking for.”

Another possibility is to offer learning programmes to candidates applying for jobs at Philips.

Chatbots and image recognition

The company plans to introduce a chatbot next year to answer employees’ HR questions. It is looking at chatbot technology from IBM which makes use of the Watson computer, and other companies.

Meerman is also considering introducing video interviews for job candidates. The technology will not replace a human interviewer, but will be able to provide the interview with additional feedback by analysing the candidate’s manner.

For example, it might note that a candidate showed a high level of maturity when answering one question or a high level of insecurity. It could also highlight instances when candidates gave high-energy answers and appeared really passionate.

Philips HR IT technology

“My biggest challenge will be to ensure that people understand what is available and what they can use,” said Meerman. “It’s really about adoption, because if no one is using our learning system, there is not much point in it.”

He said there is a risk that, as technology becomes complex, that companies may lose the “human element” to automated processes.

“HR professionals need to make sure we are up to date, to understand where the technology is going, and to make sure we start driving the agenda more,” he added.

Peter Meerman was a speaker at the Unleash World Conference and Expo in Amsterdam on 23-24 October 2018.

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