TechopiaLive: Help me, Rhonda: IMI's AI-powered digital persona gets real-time feedback from employees

When the CEO of North America's largest installation resource company wanted to get a better idea of how his employees were doing, he set out to create Rhonda, an AI-powered digital persona that could check in with them and monitor employee satisfaction. Now, he's taking the SAS solution to market and hopes other companies can use it to check in with their employees and improve company culture. On this episode of TechopiaLive, host Sherry Aske explores how Rhonda came to be, with Rudi Asseer, CEO of IMI People and the creator of Rhonda.

This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

RA: Simply put, Rhonda is an employee engagement tool. It's driven by AI. We're in the middle of this Great Resignation going on right now, where more and more employees are constantly feeling disconnected from their organization. So we thought it'd be really interesting to put some technology together to provide a better experience for people with the companies that they're working with and provide managers with data as to how are our people doing. We focus a lot on the sentiment analysis, so we're in constant communication with workforces across the world. We're simply asking them, look, on a scale of one to five, how's your week going? And that information is so key to us and we're able to triage it, for those that are doing great and everything seems to be aligned, to those that might have an issue. It's something as simple as just providing people with that button they can press and their voice can be heard. And given the environment that we're in, it's so obvious that everyone is all over the place. There's a lot of mixed information and managers are having a hard time engaging with their workforce. So we hope the Rhonda platform and solution finally gives people an opportunity to really communicate how they're doing and start that crucial conversation around performance improvements, areas of concern and things like that. Simply put, the elevator pitch is an experiential platform. We want to engage with workforces around the world and help them feel more connected to their enterprise or employer.

OBJ: You've explained really well the need for it now, but to back up a bit, what gave you the idea for Rhonda originally?

RA: I joined this organization five years ago as a CEO for a company called IMI, which is where I am now. It's such an interesting organization. They had a fragmented workforce all across North America at the time and it was challenging to try to get a better understanding of, “Who are our resources? What skills do they have? Are they truly happy?” We had thousands of employees. So we needed to come up with something that had high impact and at scale. With the Rhonda solution that came together, it was really a simple opportunity to say, “Okay, let's reach out to the workforce and start having these conversations and say, ‘Look, on a scale of one to five, how are you doing?’” And the data that came in was very interesting. I certainly won't sugar coat it and say it was all rainbows and unicorns; there were some really upset people. And so as a new leader in the organization, I had a duty and responsibility to start triaging through some of this information and try to get to the core of the discontent. Some people felt they were not moving in the company, or not progressing at a pace they thought they would be, or didn’t like the roles that they were doing. Standard things that are really not unique to a lot of other organizations. But what's unique to us is we actually had those conversations. So with Rhonda, I was able to converse with thousands of workers all over the world, essentially, and really start triaging these sets. Also, more importantly, cataloging their skill sets and their strengths, and really making sure that they're providing a tremendous amount of value to the organization and being happy. So it's really just that engagement.

OBJ: How did you know that Rhonda helped improve employee culture? 

RA: The boring stuff is the statistics. Some people love the data, don't get me wrong. But the data clearly demonstrated an increase in culture performance by I think 20 per cent initially. It means we were the benchmark culture immediately. We were averaging just below, just about three out of five, if we were to use that as a reference. What type of behaviours does the organization have to do to start really moving the needle in a better direction? So by simply having those conversations, the score started to change immediately. We started to see the shift in the culture happen in real time. I don't know why, but more and more organizations today are tasked to perform at a world-class level. But a lot of us still continue to use these archaic management structures. Quarterly reviews or, in some organizations, oh, we'll do an annual review. Really? Can you imagine a world-class sports team and they get off the ice or the basketball court, and the coach says, "Let's not talk about this game until the season's over." However, organizations are expected to perform at a world-class level, but they operate with an archaic structure. Engagement for me is so important to every single employee that works within our organization. That was really the fuel behind it. I wanted to get engaged, I wanted to get a better understanding of who the people we have and who they are and what they're doing and their preferences, and really started building roadmaps to success and aligning them to where they want to be.

OBJ: You got to test it, you got to work out some of those challenges. And then what made you decide it was ready to take to market?

RA: It was really just a product of the environment. I'm really passionate about the technology. When I'm on an assignment and working with organizations, I really try to bring out the maximum value out of that company in a very unique experience. So I had been communicating this Rhonda messaging for a long time and said, "Look, there's a better way to do things. There's certainly technology that's available out there that you can leverage and you can pull together a stack and put something together that works." I was at a fantastic conference a couple of years ago and business leaders get it. If you genuinely care about your culture and you want to get further engaged into what makes the organization tick, this is by far the easiest platform for you to deploy.

OBJ: I just want to go back to what you were saying about the excitement that you were hearing when you tell leaders about this tool and the feedback you got right away. Do people mind at all that it is a bot that is messaging them? I know Rhonda has a name and she's personal, but do people mind that it's a bot and not their manager, or not an HR person messaging them?

RA: The techies out there will call it a bot all day. It's a line of code, it performs a function. The algorithm is relatively simple, but it's a very elegant algorithm that we've put together. And because it's so simple, it has so much impact. But we really put a lot of research into creating a digital persona. And we felt that if you try to humanize the experience, it just makes it that much more palpable to the individual experiencing the technology. We wanted to create that lifeline to all the men and women we have in the organization so that they have access to a resource that can triage and help them out. Some people are comfortable communicating with technology and we talked about challenges a little bit earlier. I would say this is challenge number one. So the message was set, the standard was established before we even launched the solution. We managed it through that and through education and really trying to bring people together and managed tough topics like data security.

OBJ: How do you handle those tough topics? Because even with the buy-in for the bot, for Rhonda and for people accept it, I think there still has to be a manager on the other end, or there has to be a human response to the data, correct? 

RA: Absolutely. The magic sauce is the triaging. Our solution provides a very computated set. Where the success or the victories come in is the human interaction with that data to now translate it into action. As an example, we had an individual who was constantly a one and a two all the time and I spoke with the manager and I said, "Okay, so what are you gonna do about it? I mean, that's the purpose of management is to try to interact with your workforce." And he said, "I didn't even know." I said, "Okay, well, let's have some conversations." So they started having conversations within and the solution was relatively simple in nature. But sometimes you get lost in large organizations. And they were able to augment that score now where that individual is happy. If someone has a certain level of discontent in whatever it is that they're doing, if it's work or personal and you can't fix that problem, then maybe it's time to look in the mirror and say, "Okay, well this environment isn't right for you." And we've had to have those crucial conversations. We generally want our people to be happy, we want our people to provide as much value as they can and augment and enhance the experience of IMI. But if they're just miserable and not happy people, then we have to have those tough conversations. For me it's always two things. It's, number one, what is your technical contribution to the organization? Which is important. And number two, what is your cultural contribution to the organization? We are a people company, we are rooted in the people business. I don't care if you're wicked smart, but if you're a jerk, you don't have a place with this organization. That's how we drive a positive culture environment.

OBJ: Let's talk about taking this to other companies, because it was created internally, now it's being offered to others. I know you mentioned getting buy-in for the algorithm, you mentioned privacy of data. What are the big challenges you're seeing as you try to make this work for other companies?

RA: Well, it's a push-pull effect. In an organization, you've gotta go a few layers down and get buy-in at that level. There's got to be a collaborative process and it's got to make sense for that organization. I don't think Rhonda is the solution for all. It's a solution for an organization that's looking to change and is looking to get further engaged with their people. So, it's getting proper alignment between HR, IT and the C-suite, so everyone has this common goal together. And if we have that, then it's a slam dunk, we have these great collaborative meetings and we launch it, we work on awesome messaging. It's just an amazing, amazing process. But if there's resistance at the execution level, then you're gonna have a hard time. You have to have your whole team on board.

OBJ: I love that recognition that the C-suite will be on board, but you have to go a few levels lower to make sure that employees are willing to engage with it and are willing to pick it up. Where do you want to see things go? Can you tell us how many companies are using this right now besides IMI, and where it might go in the future?

RA: Launching software is not easy. So we're super fortunate that we were able to partner with Microsoft Azure to provide world-class data encryption and security. That was right off the top one of our major things, but you'll learn a lot of these things. I think great success is really in something that makes it simple. You should be able to go to rhonda.ai, browse the site, take a look and just click it and try it, that's all it is. And I feel strongly that it will be viral. There are so many stories of organizations that just go at it the wrong way. And if it's not natural, if it doesn't make sense, then you don't need this horsepower behind you. If they generally want to make their company a better place and further engage with it, that's the way to go.

OBJ: Does IMI have the capacity to scale it up and offer it? Like you say if it goes viral, do you have the capacity to adapt it to that many business clients?

RA: Absolutely. And we're scaling what I call in a responsible fashion. So, you build it, they will come. Yeah, that works to some extent, but you have to be very careful and you gotta scale responsibly. And what I mean by that is managing your financial drivers, your internal controls, and making sure that you're moving at the right pace as things develop. And you've gotta make sure that your stack is prepared to grow as well. So having great partners around our technology, we're prepared to scale. The technology is there, the platform was built by some great engineers in Ottawa, which I'm really proud of to be a Canadian company that's operating some really cool tech down there. And I mean, we have so many great resources, it's tough. All my friends that have been on your show before and different recipients and things, we all battle for the same resources. But we love the ecosystem. Ottawa is such a great town and there's so much opportunity for young talent coming out of programs such as Ottawa U and different areas to really start to craft their skill and exercise it and try it. And experiential AI is where we're at specifically with this portfolio of all the companies that I manage. And it's exciting, it's really exciting, simply.

OBJ: Is there anything else you want to say or let people know about the tool, or about the industry, or about the market before we go?

RA: I've talked a lot about digital transformation for organizations. I think if an organization is looking to pivot where they're at, it's really about communication and building the team. What technology can we leverage to help us drive there? Selfishly, on our side, we're hiring. My biggest challenge, Sherry, is people. I need people all day and we're constantly looking for developers and all sorts of designers and things inside to come and help build this great program that we've put together and we're always open to receive. I also got an email yesterday that Forty Under 40 nominations are coming out again, so, hopefully, a lot of people can get some talent in there and recognize the folks that are building great companies in our community.