Wake-up Call | Abi Dudley: The psychologist revolutionizing HR

Abi Dudley is using artificial intelligence to transform Ernst & Young (EY), drawing upon her training in psychology to inform the future of human resources

In 2005, Abi Dudley was finishing her studies in psychology at the University of Oxford when she realized she wanted to pursue a new field: technology. “Clinical psychology was interesting, but it would have taken me another five years of training just to start working,” Dudley recalls. “I was ready for something different — and it took me to a job I now love.”

Born in 1984 in Brighouse, England — a village in northern Yorkshire — Dudley, 34, grew up as the daughter of practicing doctors. Inspired by the work of clinical psychologists who were attempting to map the human mind, she studied psychology at Oxford. But when it came time to graduate, Dudley had a wake-up call. “At Oxford, there are very traditional tracks in which you get a degree and then go into medicine,” she explains. “But I decided to try something different — the business world.”

That choice brought Dudley to London, where she worked in industries including oil and gas as well as in the public sector, implementing new technologies to upgrade companies, until finally landing in human resources — a role that combines all of her talents. As global strategy and operations lead for HR systems at EY, she uses cutting-edge technology to staff one of the largest accounting firms in the world and enlists artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud to ensure quality work experiences for more than 250,000 people in 140 countries.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.


Were you into technology growing up?

Growing up, technology was a bit geeky [laughs]. It was a thing boys did in their rooms. It wasn’t even on my radar. Obviously, that’s very different now.


How did you transition from studying psychology to business consulting?

I had no idea what management consultancy was. At Oxford, we had job fairs. A lot of companies came to the university — and I thought going in and solving problems for people actually sounded like quite an interesting thing to do.


How do you explain your role at EY to folks outside the company? 

We design employee experiences. We are defining a strategy to enable talent through their work lifecycle. When we recruit people, we help them learn from management all the things that enable them to start and manage their career. And all the technology that sits underneath that is currently part of the strategy we’re developing on my team in HR systems.


How are you using technology to improve how EY does business? 

In 2015, when I started at EY, our HR systems were crazy, fragmented, all over the place: We had 700 pieces of technology in 140 countries. I would have to interface with 10 pieces just to do anything HR-related. We decided to take those 700 pieces and bring them down so we could focus. Around then, we were just starting to hear inklings about AI, robotic process automation (RPA) and the cloud. I thought, “Hang on a minute. We’re missing a trick here. How do we use these tools even better?” And that’s when we started to sit down with IBM and [discuss] their Watson™ technology, [an] absolutely fantastic solution.


What are some of the questions that come up when working with AI in the HR sphere? 

We knew IBM was already doing a lot of AI work internally, in their own HR department. And we learned from that. I need to understand the technology and how AI applies to it. How do AI, blockchain, VR, IoT apply? What is the talent use case for those particular solutions? And is there a valid business value in there? Should we bring that kind of technology into our HR suite?


You guys have implemented a chatbot into your HR operations. How’s that working out? 

We’ve done it for onboarding and performance management. In terms of the business impact that we’re seeing, it’s not just about dollars. From an experience perspective, we’re giving our customers better levels of engagement. Everything that people want at home, we are bringing in the workplace. In terms of engagement, we saw around half a million interactions with it in the first 28 days, which was quite big. In terms of value, it effectively paid for itself within the first seven days. And from a speed perspective, we deployed this solution very quickly, within just 31 days, to 250,000 people around the world. IBM helped us run it all — they were fantastic.


You have two young children. How do you navigate a dynamic career and a busy family life? 

I have two beautiful girls, aged three and one. Recently, a colleague drew up four quadrants — work, family, community, health — and asked me to rate myself on each. I said, “This is crazy!” I was quite work-focused. So now I work part-time, Tuesday through Thursday, and take care of the kids the rest of the week. It was another wake-up call. I’ve become balanced — and that’s important.