The 720,000-member Alberta Motor Association is speeding up the process of training new staff with virtual agent “Amy.”

An e-learning agent from Edmonton-based CodeBaby, Amy interacts intelligently with the new staff member, making it much more interesting than struggling through a copy of the association’s 160-page manual, according to AMA education and development manager Gerald Mykytiuk.

“One of the issues that we had in the past was that we had people with old manuals, recopying old material and not getting updates,” Mykytiuk said.

Putting the manuals online didn’t solve the problems.

“When we did put it online, it was very difficult to slog through,” Mykytiuk said. “The retention was very low.”

Interest and retention have both improved considerably using CodeBaby, he said.

“It’s not so static — it’s a little bit more dynamic.”

While staff can still read page by page if they want to, Amy is available as a guide through the manual’s 10 sections.

Considering that about 150 new staff are taken on annually, the result is a potentially large boost in the efficiency of training them. So far, about 55 new staff have taken part in the CodeBaby pilot program, and the feedback is positive, Mykytiuk said.

“The reporting back so far is that, yes, it’s helped them, primarily to remember more information, by creating some variety, by generating some interest for them to read further into the section,” he said.

A big advantage of CodeBaby over competing software is its production studio development tool, which permits the client to develop the virtual characters.

“We didn’t have to hire talent,” Mykytiuk said.

The studio lets clients create content in a short time. For instance, a client can drag in an audio file, and it automatically lip syncs with the character.

Though the association’s main goal in using CodeBaby was to boost the efficiency of staff training, it will likely save money, he added.

About 150 of the AMA’s 1,200 full-time and 400 part-time staff work directly with the association’s members, and they must become familiar with the AMA’s various services. The software has cut the time it takes new hires in that department to learn the AMA’s activities.

“Their service experience is a lot faster,” Mykytiuk said.

There are no restrictions on the gender, race or other qualities of CodeBaby’s virtual agents, but most clients prefer females, CodeBaby marketing director Doug Johnson said.

“It’s the gender that both genders trust,” Johnson said. “You can write script for a female character that you can’t put into a male’s mouth.”

However, CodeBaby is willing to build any kind of character that a client requests.

“We have been asked specifically for a pan-racial agent,” he said.

Johnson said that numerous companies have attempted to build virtual agent software, but many have failed.

A notable example is Microsoft’s infamous paper clip.

“It tried to help you when you didn’t need help,” he said. It was annoying.”

As well, the paper clip, unlike CodeBaby’s agents, was two-dimensional, making it look cartooney, he said.

“If you’re talking about the corporate market, like we are, they definitely want to put some effort into how their characters look,” Johnson said.

CodeBaby focuses on two main markets.

The first is e-learning, the area in which the AMA is using the software.

“The big pain there is keeping people’s attention, and helping them remember,” Johnson said, and people are far more likely to pay attention in the presence of a virtual agent.

The second market that CodeBaby is aiming at is customer self-service where clients can save money by encouraging customers to use Internet services rather than phoning.

“Every time you can prevent someone from picking up the phone and calling a call centre, you can save from $10 to $25,” Johnson said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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