The hearing iceberg, and how AI can help

communication wfh May 12, 2020
The hearing iceberg, and how AI can help

Written by Jeff Bradley, Phrasia.


Will the crisis help or hurt our ability to hear each other?

Nobody saw it coming. The massive, sudden shift to WFH has been a crowdsourced improvisation, to varying degrees.

People have made their own daily choices on how to best do their work amidst the multiple stresses of a global pandemic, and companies have scurried to respond. The resulting creativity and problem-solving has shown many people what words like “empowered” and “agile” really mean.

Crises can bring out the best in us. But as the adrenaline fueling our initial response begins to subside, cracks are appearing.

As indicated in the research, people miss the benefits of face-to-face contact. As a result, the alignment between leaders and employees is at risk, as are the broader relationships between peers.

What tools do we have to mitigate this risk, when face-to-face contact is not an option, and when people are already complaining of Zoom fatique?  

Language is an incredible tool we use every day to engage with each other. Unfortunately, companies underutilize it in spotting issues, enlightening decisions and fueling engagement. HR too often relies on closed-ended, multiple choice surveys, based on pre-set views. Data science obsesses on analysis of numbers – but often uses outdated keyword tools to make sense out of language.

Corporate communication is focused on newsletters, outbound messages, and webcasts with limited true dialogue. The above status quo actions above may be comfortable, but this low fidelity use of language is risky in the current context.

As a business that applies new AI technology to to find the hidden clues in unstructured language, we believe there has never been a more important time to step-change our approach to language. It’s time to find new, better ways to truly hear each other.

I. The Hearing Iceberg

It has always been a challenge to maintain a clear sense of what is happening in a business, even for the most enlightened among us. It is harder than ever in the WFH era. Why?

a)  We have fewer ways to hear. With the end of water cooler discussions, coffee sessions, lunch outings, and face-to-face meetings, thousands of node and links of unstructured hearing are gone. That means less help for leaders in making sense of of the world. Open-ended communication is a powerful tool to help us identify the things that aren’t on the radar.  

It allows for the iteration of ideas without confrontation. In a world of reductive agendas and crowded conference calls, it is hard to maintain. The reduced time for unstructured conversation with others increases the risk that we isolate ourselves in forming views, resulting in different versions of the truth that are hard to reconcile once they are set.

b) Everyone feels less “heard”. Have you ever had conversation where the other person didn’t stop talking about himself? “Enough about me, what do YOU think about me?” they said. We’ve all met the type. Whether you are a CEO, a department head, or a small potato, people will respond to you better if they feel heard. If they feel heard, they will lean forward and help.

Face to face contact and the unstructured coffee chats aren’t only good for the receiver. They are great for the giver. They are an emotional outlet for expression which makes the speaker (or writer) feel valued and in control. They are fundamental to building trust.

The loss of unstructured, open-ended hearing will make all of us feel less heard – eroding motivation and trust – unless we look for ways to augment it. With many people missing the social interaction and face-to-face contact at work, we have to expect they feel less heard.

II.  Don’t use old tools to address new problems – aim higher

The standard engagement and communication playbook is unlikely to be enough. Instead, companies need to spot the emerging problems and opportunities faster, and down to the specifics. They need to understand the drivers. To act on them properly, companies need to ensure that employees feel heard and engaged across the organisation. And they need new tools to help.

III.  Open ended hearing, with an AI boost:  Hearing the voice of the crowd

Phrasia leverages the observations of customers, employees, and stakeholders to make sense out of the current reality. At the heart of our approach is AI technology that “reads” tens of thousands of their statements into clear, quantified clusters of meaning.  

Language is everywhere. It flows in and around every organisation, every day, whether it’s an analysis of statements in political press briefings, employee exit interviews, Stranger Things forums on Reddit, or 360 feedback. We’ve applied an algorithm trained on billions of texts to find unexpected patterns in the above, and more.  Attached is a map of what the Twitterverse has to say about COVID-19, for example.  

A Phrasia map  of 6000+ Working From Home (WFH) Tweets

A Phrasia map of 6000+ Working From Home (WFH) Tweets

In the past, we’ve feared asking open-ended questions in surveys, because reading and making sense of them all has been too slow, too hard, and too expensive.  Without getting too technical, the science in this space has changed radically in the past 2 years. AI can take this analysis much further, instantly spotting the higher meaning in thousands of statements, posts, verbatims, or comments to separate the signal from the noise.  

As a result, companies can now ask fewer, bigger, open-ended questions, (in almost any language) and machine-process the results simply.  We no longer need to fear open-ended questions!

IV.  Asking the right question:  What can organisations and communities do to hear better?

The above advances mean we no longer need to expect ourselves to have all of the answers. Instead, the most competitive businesses will simply ask better questions, and better leverage the help of thousands of their customers and employees in hearing the answers.

Below are just a few examples of the questions we can ask to improve our understanding of customers or employees, with responses analysed to reveal a rich mosaic of views, with quantified rigor.

  • In what specific ways has the move to WFH affected company X’s ability to meet customers’ needs?  Please elaborate.

  • Please share between 1-3 ideas on how video meetings can be more productive and stimulating:

  • In what ways to you anticipate the world will be permanently changed due to the pandemic?

  • What are your three greatest concerns about the future of your employment?

  • What suggestions do you have for how the company can support wellness during WFH?

Any of the above questions can set into a motion a new, richer form of mass dialogue between companies and people.  The resulting maps can be shared with staff to show they have been heard, and that the company is prioritising their top 3 concerns, colletively. 

As we mentioned above, Phrasia is delighted to be working with theDesk through an initial study on how people feel about WFH.

Use a desktop or PC and Stay in until the end, and the survey will reveal your own response relative to all of the other responses received, as processed by our deep learning tools.

V.  Closing question

And if you haven’t yet taken the survey, please go here

Now, we would like to hear from you.  What you would most like to learn through the use of our tool? What question would you like to ask of the crowd?  We are eager to hear.

Contact us on [email protected]