Tech Insights: Software That Just Makes Us a Lot Smarter

Apr 22, 2014

Many people recognize that a smart phone makes the average Joe resemble a super-intelligent android.

With the phone, Joe can do advanced math, tell you the population of Qatar, and do simple translations between languages.

Great as that is it only a part of the equation of being smarter. Managers often need to be more insightful. Can software help with that?

Helping managers gain better insight

Two examples of firms attempting to help managers with insight are Cognician and’s goal is to improve engagement. They believe the road to doing so is more insightful conversations between managers with employees.

Their tool, the Employee Performance Optimizer, achieves this by having the manager and employee answer a survey. The software compares the answers and points out issues such as differences in thinking around what is important.

It also asks them to agree on a few action steps, so that the manager and employee do not make the common mistake of walking away from the conversation without any accountability for doing something differently.

Cognician simulates a conversation between a manager and coach. The manager picks a topic of interest, like persuasion, and the software helps them think it through, offering helpful ideas and asking pointed questions.

Software that simulates a human coach

There is no artificial intelligence engine, in a sense it is a canned set of facts and questions like an e-learning course, however the feel is quite different, and the motivated manager can engage with software much as they might with a live coach.

In both these examples, the software can be seen as simulating a human coach. Managers probably know they should be having more one-on-one conversations (“stay interviews“), but may not have the skill to do it well.

Even if they are skilled, in the frazzled world of management, they may not have the time or energy to prepare. helps them have much better conversations — just as if a coach were facilitating the dialogue. Cognician is more direct in simulating the coach-manager conversation; the trick is creating a reflective mood that gets managers thinking about a topic in a new way.

What is interesting

  • There does not seem to be an established name for this category of software, but there are no doubt lots of companies attempting to create something new and wonderful in this space.
  • One could mistake these tools for e-learning or survey software, however that seems to miss the point.

Where the real value is

  • Note that the heavy-duty cognitive work still lies with the humans. Wisely neither tool tries to take that on. The tools are a good pairing of what the computer “coach” can do and what the human must do.
  • With IBM’s Watson, we will see applications that begin to take on more of the cognitive load; probably by offering more precisely tuned questions, examples and facts. That is pretty cool, but remember that the best human coaches keep the cognitive load on the coachee. Good human coaches corral people into answering their own questions. The best software will probably do the same.
  • In both cases the heart of the process is a structured conversation. Structured conversations are one of the most powerful tools in HR. We need to pay attention to how they work and all they can do.
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