How Telstra built an AI virtual assistant for HR

By | 3 minute read | June 22, 2021

Person accessing documents and data

After transforming its customer service with virtual assistants, Australia’s largest telco is turning its attention to human resources, another sector ripe for AI disruption.

Telstra provides services to millions of customers across 20 countries, managing more than 50 million customer service calls a year. To handle this volume, Telstra built a simple routing chatbot named Codi, which evolved into multiple internal and external use cases, collectively saving an estimated AUD 10 million. Over time, and with the help of IBM Watson, Telstra added functionality to Codi, fine-tuning the assistant’s natural language engine and turning Codi into a full-service digital concierge.

The lessons learned from Codi’s development are now being used to transform Telstra’s HR operations. Telstra is setting its sights on a cross-platform AI interface that will enable employees to ask questions and perform tasks across any company system.

Machine-assisted human resources

With more than 28,000 employees, Telstra needed a smarter way to manage internal queries and self-service functionality.

“I was really happy to apply that technology to HR and look at how we could deliver a better employee experience,” says Digital Experience Principal Melissa Dorey. Dorey, a 2021 IBM Women Leaders in AI honoree, worked with an all-female development team to build this solution.

“We had virtual assistants and AI on the roadmap for quite a while. But during the pandemic I was inspired by rapid innovation in our organization and in the industry. I thought to myself, now’s a really great time to innovate.”

The team ran into problems presented by the complexity of human language. For example, the HR department’s specific terminology for a policy or process often diverged from that used by the rest of the company.

“We’ve always struggled in providing easy access to answers to HR questions,” says Dorey. The team had tried intranets, knowledge bases and search engines. But Telstra needed more than a simple search tool. They needed a smarter solution that could understand human language and its syntactical nuances, so that when an employee didn’t quite get the terminology right or articulate a complicated question, the platform could guide them toward the answer. IBM Watson provided natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities to solve this problem. Watson’s shrewd comprehension of the nuances of human language enabled real employee self-service.

Meet Darcy

Telstra’s virtual assistant for HR is called Darcy. Employees with HR questions can speak directly to Darcy through Zendesk, the helpdesk software. Darcy suggests queries like “How can I check my vacation hours?” The assistant can walk the user through a series of questions and answers, refining the initial query and moving closer toward a satisfactory answer. If Darcy can’t answer the query directly, it can pull up relevant content from a knowledge base. If Darcy can’t resolve a query, or if the matter is sensitive, Darcy can hand the interaction off to a human agent in HR.

Telstra is now looking to expand their AI virtual assistant to other platforms such as the Workday Enterprise Management Cloud. The more systems that Darcy can access, the better the assistant can respond to queries that require cross-platform knowledge to resolve. Darcy can even go beyond assisting with information and actually perform tasks and send reminders.

In the future, Darcy will be able to talk to other bots throughout the company, extending the reach of the assistant’s knowledge beyond the HR function, and helping employees answer all sorts of questions and perform all sorts of tasks. Dorey says that Darcy could evolve into a holistic user interface, at once a personalized assistant and a company-wide hivemind that enables any employee to more efficiently and effectively manage their work life and engage with the company across dozens of systems.

“Employees’ queries are very broad, and they can touch many different teams and systems and tools, so it’d be much nicer if we could provide a connected experience.”

With incremental improvement and steady innovation, Telstra activates smarter workflows in areas of the company where they can add the most value. Infusing the HR function with conversational AI is a high ROI transformation, as it empowers employees from all across the organization to do their best work.