Need to know:
- The delivery of benefits is becoming more mobile-optimised, with new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain waiting in the wings.
- Data and data analytics is playing an increasingly important part in the personalisation of reward.
- Communication, security and transparency remain key, especially amid concern and publicity around the ‘harvesting’ of social media data.
Technology, through smartphones, digitalisation and social media, is arguably the most significant enabler of our time. But, as we are also increasingly aware, through scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook users’ data, there can be a fine line between algorithms and data analytics being a force for good, for example, for increased personalisation and convenience, and the risk that how data is gathered, analysed and used becomes perceived as intrusive or invasive.
For benefits and reward professionals, this is very much a live debate. On the one hand, technology has transformed how benefits and reward strategies are planned, delivered and communicated in recent years. On the other, and in a post-General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) landscape, the fact that data interrogation and analytics is of growing importance within the benefits space as a means of informing and directing reward strategy, means employers need to be cognisant of the pitfalls, as well as the opportunities of this data-driven world.
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Online benefits are, of course, not new. Richard Morgan, strategic consultant at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “I can remember online and flexible benefits from back in the 1990s.”
What is changing, and increasingly coming into play, is mobile functionality being built into this delivery of benefits. “If we look at how we shop and interact online, we rely more and more on our mobiles and tablets; that is how benefits are and need to be going,” says Morgan. “Nowadays, [employers] can have a mobile-optimised version of their flex platform.
“We’re also getting more and more personalised content, including video content. So it might be a short financial education video explaining the benefit of, say, increasing a pension contribution.”
Ray Sieber, managing director at Zest Benefits, adds: “On the administration side, technology is making things easier and clearer, more foolproof. With increased automation, it is much easier to compare and validate systems, too.
“Employers need to remember that, when they’re communicating with employees, it is like communicating with consumers. So, how do people interface, and expect to interface, with, say, Amazon, and how does that compare with what they’re offering?
“With the emergence of data analytics and the aggregating of data, things have really been moving forward fast. In the next 10 years, we will be extending further into areas such as machine learning.”
At present, the application of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and blockchain technology within reward remains relatively rare, says George Zarkadakis, digital lead at Willis Towers Watson. But the ability of blockchain, in particular, to create networks of seamless, secure transactions could transform the automation of payroll, pensions and other benefits.
“AI and machine learning have an important role to play as well, especially in the optimisation of rewards,” he says. “It is still early days, but we are seeing more vendors moving in this direction.
“Reward and benefits will become increasingly personalised and interactive, and that is a good thing. It is about using data to pick up signals about what a workforce needs. So, perhaps an employee has just got married or has become a parent; [the employer] could respond by offering particular benefits, and that creates a new level of engagement and loyalty.
“Effective, personalised communications are essential. [Employers] need to engage and communicate with employees so they understand the value that they are offering them in using their data for personalisation. And, for transparency, empowering employees to opt out from allowing their use of their personal data, if they so wish.”
Responsible data collection
Having said that, the fact is many of us in our personal lives have readily given over our data to Amazon, Facebook and the like in return for what they offer. So, handled securely and transparently, why should it be any different within a targeted, relevant benefits arena, says Gary Peace, corporate sales manager at The Health Insurance Group.
“I think this is less of an issue than people sometimes think,” he explains. “We all use things like Twitter, Facebook or Amazon. Of course, there are worries about how they use data, especially at the moment. But, as individuals, we are often all too happy to give it quite freely; it is increasingly becoming the norm and accepted. GDPR has simply added a layer of responsibility around how data is managed and controlled.”
And, while talk of blockchain, AI and machine learning can feel a bit technological Wild West, at the end of the day it comes down to a very traditional circle squaring: meeting employee demand and expectation.
“Everyone talks about the rise of the machines, but in fact I’d say this is about the rise of the human,” says Zarkadakis. “It is about humans, and the data around them, becoming much more valuable assets, and completely rethinking reward as a result.”