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A First Look at Joule: The New Digital Assistant for SuccessFactors

Learn how SAP's new digital assistant can enhance end-user system interaction and adoption for SAP SuccessFactors.

SAP has been working on conversational navigation, also known as a digital assistant, since 2018. In the second half (2H) 2023 release, SAP introduced Joule.

This blog offers a first look at Joule, including initial impressions in the context of SuccessFactors and a quick historical perspective.

Why Use a Digital Assistant in Human Resources?

Dealing with a clueless chatbot for support can be frustrating. The chatbot lacks empathy or contextual knowledge. It does not seem to learn or improve and asks the same question again and again.

Digital assistants in HR assist users by answering questions and performing basic tasks in HR domains such as recruitment, leave management, frequently asked questions (FAQs), employee onboarding, reimbursement processing, payroll management, employee analytics, pre-screening applicants, hiring, and scheduling meetings. These digital assistants can provide quick and accurate responses to questions in a conversational manner. With Joule, SAP aims to simplify access to information and automate business processes, thereby improving employee and customer satisfaction. Joule supports three conversational patterns:

    Helping users navigate to the desired functionality

    Assisting users in the efficient completion of their tasks

    Helping users retrieve information from existing documents

Effective People has taken part in the Joule beta program named SuccessFactors Digital Assistant. The program has been running for a few months. It has provided valuable insights into how the solution is configured, how it is integrated with SuccessFactors, and how it works for end users. In the following section, we offer our perspective on each use case.

Use Case 1: Navigational Support

The first use case is navigational support. If a SuccessFactors user frequently uses a certain function, they typically do not need navigational support. But even frequent users sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by unfamiliar features.

For example, Susan is a line manager who has given lots of feedback and guidance in the Goals and Development plan. For the first time in a long time, she must create a job requisition. She is unsure where to start in SuccessFactors.

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Although this use case shows just a few steps, Joule knows that Susan has some direct reports. Joule also understands the request, forgives a keyword typo (“requsition”), and suggests the next steps. When Susan selects the correct person, Joule can create the requisition and send it for approval.

Use Case 2: Transactional Support

The second use case is about transactional support, which is needed when a person does not know how to get started. For example, John is used to creating job requisitions as a recruiter. Since he was recently promoted, he is unsure how to provide ad hoc feedback to his direct reports. Watch how Joule can support John in the following video.

Although Joule is limited at this moment, SAP promises that the digital assistant will support more transactions in its upcoming releases. Examples could be:

“I need to give feedback to John about the failed project. Can you help me?”

“I need to reclassify 15 positions.”

“Can you route all performance forms to calibration for me, if they pass validation?”

Upcoming release news will be interesting to follow.

Use Case 3: Informational Support

The third use case is informational support. It involves more basic system interaction. An example is someone who wants to retrieve information from the system but is unsure where the information is stored. This is a simpler use case intended for infrequent users.

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Although the informational support is basic now, such support can be useful for specific users. Informational support has huge potential to increase knowledge and improve decision-making. It could answer such questions as:

“Do I have any pending tasks to complete before I go on vacation?”

“What is the diversity profile of my team?”

“Susan just requested vacation for the first two weeks of August. Do any other team members have planned vacation those weeks?”

Is Joule Intelligent or Just a Static Algorithm?

This question is difficult to answer in Joule’s early days. There is no doubt that the underlying technical architecture behind Joule supports machine learning. It can be fed information and learn from user patterns. But—as of now—the current solution is a closed box that customers cannot access. So if you want to build your own vocabulary or add your own navigational pattern, Joule does not yet support these tasks.

Will Joule Learn from End-User Interactions to Improve Future User Interactions?

Like the previous question, because of Joule’s newness, this one is difficult. However, I hope that the answer will be yes. The road map for 2024 includes usage insights and analytics capabilities.

Will Joule Be Able to Provide Proactive Guidance?

For example, will Joule be able to ask a logged-in user, Susan, a question like this:

“Hi Susan. You have not provided feedback to John for six weeks. Would you like help to give him some constructive feedback?”

This feature needs to be done carefully to avoid AI fatigue, just like many are suffering from survey fatigue.

Other "AI" Capabilities in SuccessFactors

SuccessFactors has included end-user support features for many years. An example is the Action Search feature in SuccessFactors. Action Search allows a company to add its own words and vocabulary to the search engine. When users type in these keywords, the system proposes navigational options. This is not AI but pure text-based algorithms. SuccessFactors Recruiting also has a built-in feature called Job Analyzer. It analyzes job description texts for the candidate portal to avoid unwanted terminology. Lastly, Goal Management has had a writing assistant and coaching advisor capabilities for over 15 years (and is still going strong).

The Future of Digital Assistants Like Joule

There is no doubt that SAP will invest heavily in Joule and other solutions to improve productivity, increase user adoption, ease system usage, and ultimately enhance employee experience and customer satisfaction. That is the vision and promise to measure the success of Joule. The 2H 2023 release builds its foundation, but the real test will be in 2024. That is when Joule launches and needs to support every module across the suite, including administrative cases for system administrators and configuration specialists.

Who Will Benefit from the Digital Assistant Joule?

End users get a new method of accessing system content and navigational guidance. Support and application management teams will also likely benefit as more support-related queries can be handled by Joule. Assuming SAP mines the data collected from users, it will also benefit through better understanding of end-user interactions and where processes break.

Should We Be Concerned About the Introduction of the Digital Assistant Joule?

A digital HR assistant is not the same as a virtual HR assistant. Virtual HR assistants are remote physical workers. They help the HR department with tasks including recruitment, payroll management, background checks, screening tests, and the like. Therefore, I think that companies offering virtual assistants face the biggest business impact from digital assistants.

Historical Attempts to Build a Conversational Tool

SAP began planning to build a conversational tool native to SuccessFactors in 2018. After initial development, this program was pulled to create a tool based on the to support the entire SAP business suite. In early 2023, this initiative was also pulled back and replaced with the program that we now see as Joule. So it has been a long time coming, but since the decision was made (public) things have moved fast—and rightfully so.

Where Does the Name Joule Come From?

Joule (pronounced /ˈdʒuːl/, JOOL) is the unit of energy in the International System of Units. It is named after the famed English physicist James Prescott Joule (1818–1889). In the context of SAP’s digital assistant, you could say that Joule will give the user extra force and energy to get things done—and to get them done fast. It also makes sense to give a tool that mimics a person a real name, just as other large tech providers have done (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, etc.). This strategy puts SAP Joule in good company. Its catchy short name works in multiple language zones.

Conclusion

We believe that most companies will be using AI, machine learning, and digital assistants in the future. We do not know if this signifies the dawn of a new technical revolution, but at Effective People we will have a greater focus on AI in 2024 than ever before. We also see our clients raise topics such as how to improve productivity through automation, technology support, process alignment, and end-user support. As Joule provides support for all these areas, the digital assistant is very relevant for SAP SuccessFactors customers.

SAP has provided a short infographic that summarizes its mission and priorities for generative AI in different functions, including HR.

SAP chose to use proven technology from a partner company (IBM). Although the technology is proven, and SAP does a great job of protecting end users from seeing the tech layer, I fear its complexity could be problematic. I am also unclear on Joule’s licensing terms and conditions. But I am curious to see how customers can make Joule their own, adding company-specific knowledge, intellectual property, and capabilities. A company is better off with an assistant that knows the company than with a range of assistants that know parts of the company. This is to be proven, but with the speed that moves, we are excited by what the future will bring.

Would you like to learn more about Joule and how to use AI in HR and SuccessFactors? Click here to watch our 40-minute webinar: "Meet Joule – AI delivered for SAP SuccessFactors".

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Erik Ebert

About the author

Erik Ebert is the People Analytics & Business Development Director at Effective People.

Erik joined Effective People in 2005 and has supported organizations across industries for many years implementing digital transformation strategies to improve performance. He has a track record of building lasting relationships through a consultative approach resulting in happy, effective processes, successful engagements, effective teams, and a positive bottom line.

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