Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are proving to be valuable tools for business. What is it like to run a business with an AI? We caught up with Fraser Duncumb, Mensa member and founder of employee sentiment analysis platform Wotter.
This article was first published in the May/June 2023 issue of IQ, the magazine exclusively for British Mensa members, as part of the cover feature ‘Will artificial intelligence deliver a brighter future?’
Tell us about Wotter, where did the idea come from?
Wotter emerged from a range of perspectives: the different countries I’d visited; my earlier career as a musical instrument maker, and my time working in recruitment and speaking with people about what they love or hate about their work.
Talking with my now-business partner one evening, we started to ask whether things could be different, whether we could reimagine the workplace system that has hardly changed in 200 years, and build a world where everyone loves work. “What a world that would be,” we said, and Wotter was born.
So, the idea of change in the workplace came first, the question of how to do it followed. We had both experienced good and bad workplaces. We spoke to a number of Heads of People of companies of all sizes, and we came to the conclusion that most companies want to do the right thing by their staff but have no idea what that is. By utilising the most up-to-date AI technology and hiring one of the best AI technicians in the world, we set out to solve the problem.
What are the benefits of using the technology you do as opposed to alternative employee engagement tools?
Our goal is to revolutionise employee engagement, transforming it from a reactive exercise to a predictive one. By using state-of-the-art AI, we can get ahead of problems rather than waiting for them to manifest. In the worst cases, these issues can snowball to the point of strikes, open letters alleging serious issues in company culture, or even mass resignations – all of which can cripple a company. But the earlier we tackle problems, big or small, the less aggressive a course correction we need to make.
Your business is an interesting combination of human feelings and algorithmic sorting. It’s nice to see AI being used to keep jobs rather than take over them. Have you any examples of your tool ‘saving’ staff and improving workplaces through surfacing issues?
There’s a lovely irony to Wotter, that tech and AI can be used to add more human empathy to a workplace. We’ve seen many examples of it being put into practice, from resolving minor annoyances to enacting fundamental changes to team setup and management. A company using our platform got to the root of an issue around the workload in one of their busy teams. They were worried that they would have to increase the team size by a considerable margin in order to bring work levels back to a manageable level, which was something they may not have been able to afford to do without cutting back elsewhere in the company.
By analysing the data and bringing their team into the discussion, they concluded that the problem was not workload as such, but workflow. People were being given deadlines and work, but constantly having more dumped on them, which disrupted focus and meant that the team was then underperforming. By implementing a new planning system, hiring just one extra person, and giving the manager’s workload to that person to create a floating resource, they resolved the problem entirely. That team is now one of the highest performing in the company, with consistent reports of increased happiness, and the retention figures have shown a huge change.
What’s your feeling about AI’s role in the workplace – are certain fears overblown?
AI, at least in its current form, is an extension of our ability to understand the world. Giving mathematicians calculators didn’t put them out of a job, it pushed them to find an even greater understanding of the world around us.
By harnessing the power of data in the world of work, we can learn things about concepts we never thought we’d be able to even explore, and find greater solutions to the problems we’ve always recognised, as well as those we discover through tech. In an environment where we’re constantly competing for talent, and this competition is only getting harder, I feel there’s no excuse not to harness the power of AI.
As incredible and lifelike as ChatGPT is, we are still a long way from artificial general intelligence, or even the quantum computers that could handle and deploy it. We’re also at risk of human folly here; the belligerence of the animal kingdom and, particularly humanity, may be unique to animals, especially those that feel fear or greed, and may never manifest itself in an intellectual, rational AI.
Do you have any predictions you’d like to share, or anything else you can tell us about the changing face of work?
There’s a working revolution coming. Talented individuals are in higher demand than ever before, and the divide between companies that care and those that don’t is also increasing. As this extrapolates out, one can easily see how talented, engaged individuals will gravitate more and more to companies that care. Those that win the talent race will see incredible strides in productivity, innovation and performance. Those that don’t will see their companies confined to the history books.