Switzerland-based hospitality management school École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) is putting artificial intelligence (AI) at the core of its operations to provide students and visitors with a Siri-like interface.
The success of the system so far has meant initial fears of the system roll-out from staff was replaced by an insatiable appetite for more.
The 125-year-old organisation, with over 3,000 students from over 120 counties currently enrolled, is using IPsoft’s cognitive agent, known as Amelia.
Chief digital officer Julia Aymonier, who is tasked with digitising everything at EHL, has put Amelia at the core of this journey.
The move to AI is a dramatic achievement for the organisation given where it was a few years ago. “When I arrived at the school four years ago, originally as CIO, everything needed to be built,” says Aymonier. “When I asked students what they thought of IT, they said ‘the printers don’t work’, and I thought that was such a sad state of affairs.”
She asked the students what they would choose if they could have anything they wanted in terms of IT. “They almost all came back with the same thing. They wanted a Siri-like interface with EHL.”
But Apple doesn’t share Siri, she says, “so we started looking around at different companies that offered similar solutions”. That was in early 2016.
Aymonier says the school looked at IBM Watson but felt it did not have the financial resources to go forward with it.
She came into contact with IPsoft over a couple of years at an annual Gartner event. “The first time I spoke to IPsoft, I didn’t think its technology was mature enough,” she says. “But the following year, I thought it had something if we worked together.”
After about a year of talks, IPsoft agreed to work with EHL. “We wanted a partnership with them to use the knowledge we have internally, and IPsoft’s knowledge of AI and the natural language interface to see how we could put those together in the education and hospitality environments,” says Aymonier.
The idea being that IPsoft can take learnings from the partnership into the two sectors.
The partnership meant that both organisations benefited, which, according to Aymonier, made it affordable for an educational organisation that doesn’t have the IT budget of a big business. “We would never have been able to do this otherwise,” she says.
Amelia, IPsoft’s cognitive agent, is now key to all digital projects as a common source of support for users. “I am using Amelia as a thread in everything I do. In the school, if you need help, everything goes through Amelia.”
Amelia-based projects at EHL started in 2017 with proofs of concept. The process of on-boarding students was one of the first. This is a complicated task due to the large number of different nationalities attending the school. “We require lots of documents to ensure people can stay in Switzerland,” says Aymonier.
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Through the automation, as soon as a student is accepted, Amelia enters the process. Amelia knows all the basic information about the student, such as which country they are coming from. It will then compile a list of documents that the student has to get filled in.
Amelia will even pre-fill documents and show the students where they have to take those documents on Google Maps.
In the past, this would be very time consuming and there were sometimes errors. “We did have some cases when students had trouble getting into the country and were not allowed to stay because of mistakes,” says Aymonier.
This proof of concept proved to the school that it worked, and it will be put into production this year, but the success of the pilot brought new challenges. Staff pushed against it “because they were scared”, she says. “The first reaction from staff was that we’re going to lose our jobs.”
To overcome this inertia, the project team had to show the staff what they would gain from the automation of this and other processes.
The project team at EHL decided to use an example of how automation could make the lives of staff easier, by using an example in IT support.
What better way than making connecting to WiFi easier? With hundreds – if not, thousands – of young adults on campus, easy-to-use Wi-Fi is almost as important as flushing toilets.
In the past, the school would send an SMS message to people giving them a Wi-Fi password. But due to the message being SMS, not everybody would receive it because people are coming from across the world using multiple mobile networks. There were also problems with people not filling in their mobile numbers.
“But today, as soon as somebody walks into the school and tries to connect, Amelia takes over the conversation,” says Aymonier. They enter settings and ask to join the Wi-Fi and Amelia appears on their screen to help.
“In the past, when the school held open days and other events, it used to have four staff onsite just to answer questions about Wi-Fi,” she says. “Now Amelia has taken over, we just have one member of staff on-call.”
EHL also uses Amelia to offer 24-hour IT support. Students, for example, can contact Amelia for help via smartphones, PCs or special kiosks. She can also carry out processes such as resetting passwords
“The staff can now see the benefits of Amelia,” says Aymonier. “They were so delighted they didn’t have to sort out Wi-Fi problems and change passwords that they became evangelists for me in other parts of the company.”
She says the work on automating admissions, where staff pushed against it, “cannot go fast enough for them now”.
“Staff want to automate so many different things through Amelia now that we have to prioritise,” says Aymonier. “Everyone wants to use it and the students are driving me crazy because they want Amelia everywhere.”
Training and testing
The students at EHL play an important role in developing Amelia and are used to both train and test it. The system is also being used to externally interact with people who want information about the school, such as students and parents.
“In the past, they would type something into the chatbot and people were supposed to be monitoring it,” says Aymonier. “But they never got replies. Amelia, however, has been trained to answer questions about all the programmes we offer.”
Amelia doesn’t have all the answers, but guides people through the website by showing them the relevant webpage.
“If the answer cannot be found, Amelia is capable of identifying which admissions officers are online and passing the conversation to them. In the past, this would just disappear into a black hole,” she says.
This virtual admissions agent will be live next month, but there will be much more to come with a dedicated team at EHL working on Amelia. “I want Amelia to be the single thread that everybody knows can answer their questions about EHL,” concludes Aymonier.