SAP has made significant investments in broadening its product offerings. But as big as the company is, it still can’t create everything. So, it has taken on a side hobby: product speculation. Born out of this was SAP.iO, which is an opportunity for SAP to fund or accelerate startup organizations with an interesting product or position that could benefit SAP customers.

Ideally, SAP would then be able to evaluate the response of its users to the product, and eventually fold the “cream of the startup crop” into its portfolio. One such startup, Cultivate Technology, has developed a technology that it hopes will revolutionize how managers communicate with their employees. With a potentially direct impact on employee experience, this piqued our interest.

ASUG sat down with Joe Freed, co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, at SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference to learn more about this new technology.

The “Coach” Living in Your Inbox

Cultivate is the brainchild of two individuals. One is a former CEO who traveled a lot and worried about communication issues caused by having primarily digital interactions with his staff. The other was a data scientist at UC Berkley who was making strides analyzing relationships via text. This spawned the idea for a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help managers self-evaluate their digital communication with employees.

“Managers are overloaded with email and chat, but they still have to be managers of people,” Freed said. “When it comes to things like well-being, burnout, inclusion, and engagement, a lot of how you can influence your team can be through digital communication. But we don’t have a lot of tools to help us with this.”

The technology, when purchased, is an opt-in tool for a manager, acting as a digital “coach” to help them discover trends in their communication style with employees—especially gaps that could be closed. “I have a personal AI for me,” Freed related. “It’s not looking at anyone else’s communication data. It’s my own inbox. No one else sees it. So, companies that are forward-thinking are using this and saying, ‘I want to empower my own team.’” This allows companies to take less of a monitoring approach to sentiment, and instead collect personal data given by the managers who are opting in because they see the value of the tool to help them grow as leaders.

AI-Optimized Email

The actual AI technology that Cultivate is using has a variety of applications. Some of the ones mentioned by Freed include using AI to optimize when an email is sent, so that employees aren’t burdened by requests or emails late at night or over the weekend, which could make them feel obligated to respond in their off-work hours. The feedback the AI tool sends the user would include stats such as most frequent send times and response timeliness.

One other interesting application uses AI to analyze the content of an email itself and derive message intent. It takes into consideration the text, but also the general tone of the email (i.e., sentiment, politeness) to evaluate whether the user is giving recognition or praise, soliciting an opinion, giving feedback, or asking a question. It can then track how often the sender is using each type of intent with each member of the team to evaluate if the manager is providing certain types of communication more to specific team members—say, giving recognition to one team member more than others, or not giving as much to one team member as all others—and allow the user to shift her communication style.

Freed also provided a specific example of how this insight can impact engagement. “Our analysis has shown that if you, as a manager, want to spur engagement or participation, if you respond to their feedback with feedback of your own, it will make them more likely to give you more information. So, instead of just responding to feedback with, ‘Thanks,’ you’ll get more and open the loop of communication with, ‘Thanks. Here’s what I think about that….’” This learning places greater importance on how managers engage with their employees than what they do to connect.

Cultivate Beyond Managers

The company already is seeing the benefits of this filtering down to the lower levels within an organization. Forward-thinking managers will forward the feedback they’ve gotten from Cultivate to their teams with a potential action item, such as: “Cultivate says I shouldn’t be emailing you so much on the weekend. I apologize for that, and I’m going to scale this back in the future.” Opening the lines of communication is a quick way to increase employee engagement, especially as the workforce turns more remote and relies primarily on digital methods to get in touch.

Freed said this sharing of Cultivate information led them naturally to the development of a second tool that is designed for individual contributors, which allows them to extract feedback on how to “manage up”—the best ways to ask for feedback, how to make the most of one-on-ones, and more. Most importantly, it allows managers and employees to share this feedback together when they meet so that they continuously evolve their communication with each other.

How Does Cultivate Work with SAP?

Given the emphasis over the past few months on experience management (XM), Freed painted a picture of how Cultivate could work with SAP’s new product offering in Qualtrics XM. He positioned Cultivate as being the collector of passive data (e.g., sentiment and communication evaluation), while Qualtrics XM is more on the active data collection side (e.g., performance reviews). Putting those two pieces together allows a customer to have a more holistic picture or be able to explain nuances in one dataset from the other. Cultivate also allows users to do self-assessment at the individual level, while active feedback is often done at the organizational level.

Cultivate also has an integration with SAP SuccessFactors, which as Freed put it, “pushes information to a manager where they already live. Who really wants to have to log into another dashboard?” For SAP SuccessFactors users, including Cultivate allows the set up for managers to be easy, since Cultivate can already identify who their team is and begin the evaluation process quickly. But it also allows Cultivate’s insights to live where managers are already natively are, collecting feedback on things like learning, performance reviews, onboarding, and more. As Freed mentioned multiple times, Cultivate thrives on running in the background and serving its customers when it is most relevant and necessary.

Extending AI into New Territories

ASUG is excited to hear stories like this, because they not only bring potential new tools to SAP customers, but they also pave the way for companies to imagine how a technology like AI can be used to break down siloes or streamline their own business processes. As experience management moves more and more toward center stage, companies can learn from startups like Cultivate to fuel their own innovation efforts or improve internal interactions. This is just another example of how AI is making companies work smarter, not harder.

Interested in learning more about the newest technologies in HR? Register for the ASUG Experience for Human Resources & Payroll on Oct. 16–18 in Toronto.