© Markus Breig, KIT
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Every employee can sing a song about this. You concentrate on one project, it runs fantastically, the ideas flow just like that … and then a colleague comes and interrupts, the phone rings or an email arrives. The concentration is gone, and you feel like you need an eternity to get back on track. All this not only costs time, but also builds up additional stress, which is often greater than is bearable or healthy in the long run, due to things such as open-plan offices, time and performance pressure or constant availability.

As the Ärzteblatt reports, every second German citizen feels threatened by burnout and almost nine out of ten Germans feel stressed by their work. More than 50 percent of employees at least occasionally suffer from back pain, persistent fatigue, internal tension, listlessness or sleep disorders. 53 percent of those surveyed say they sleep poorly, 54 percent ponder their work.

In addition, people are not always the same performers, and all have different creative phases, not just writers or artists. On the other hand, they can be so absorbed in their work that they come into a concentrated state – the “flow” – and thus feel more comfortable and satisfied and are more efficient.

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has therefore set itself the goal in the coordinated Kern project (short for “Developing Competences and Using them Correctly in the Age of Digitization”) to establish and maintain this flow with the help of artificial intelligence. It is developing an assistance system that recognizes the flow thanks to AI by means of heart rate or skin conductance in order to shield any disturbances or build up competencies that promote flow.

“Automation and the progressive digitalization of value chains are rapidly changing the world of work”, says Professor Alexander Mädche of KIT. “Modern competence and education management must continuously support employees in the targeted development and deployment of their competences in the workplace”. The background to the project is the assumption that a person is most satisfied and most productive if he or she is able to carry out “his/her” job undisturbed and if his or her skills are optimally suited to the demands of his or her job.

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All Employees have Competences

“Ultimately, all employees have competencies and want to develop them further in the digital world”, emphasizes Mädche. “A key innovation of the project is that we try to recognize when employees have skills deficits in their daily work. The concept is based on saying that, when I realize that employees don’t flourish in the state of their work, also called flow, then they need support regarding their tasks or competencies. This is exactly what the Competence Assistance System does.”

To put it simply, Kern is about keeping this flow alive, which ideally should not be interrupted but supported in order to maximize this time in the flow during work. “If you imagine a project manager who receives a lot of messages as an example, the idea of the competence assistance system is to regulate this”, says Mädche. The system would then process the notifications accordingly so as not to interrupt the project manager during his time in the flow.

In order to achieve this, however, the flow must first be reliably detected. For this purpose, the volunteers wear wearables such as a wristband or chest strap, which for example measures heart rate or skin conductance. Since these physiological data are very complex patterns that can vary greatly from person to person, the researchers know that new approaches from the field of AI are required in order to recognize patterns of flow in real time. With a neuroevolutionary deep learning approach, a method of machine learning, a research group at the KIT recently succeeded in identifying the flow on the basis of physiological data.

On this basis, the Kern project then develops the prototype of an AI-based KAS, which is to provide situational feedback, such as e-mails and notifications, in such a way that the flow is not disturbed. However, the system would also recognize if productive work is disturbed for a longer period of time, for example because the tasks no longer correspond to the employee’s competence profile, and would make suggestions for “personal competence development” in this case.

“The Kern project conceives educational formats for both task accomplishment and strategic personnel development”, as it is said at the KIT. “These can range from short reports with everyday tips to a digital assistant and personal advice from a human expert”. Like a navigation system in a car, that indicates bypass options in traffic jams, AI-based KAS provide situation-dependent recommendations for action, for example by suggesting concrete learning or work units. It is then up to the employee to decide whether or not to follow these recommendations.

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Helping Employees to Develop Further in their Everyday Working Lives

Despite all the advantages that these new systems offer, like supporting and advising employees on the basis of physiological data in real time, they also interfere with the privacy of these individuals. Therefore, Mädche and his colleagues attach great importance to data protection. “On the one hand, we need to see what data is shared with whom and when, and how we can ensure privacy. On the other hand, however, we also need to know how we can use intelligent methods to evaluate data.” However, Mädche is firmly convinced that “AI-based KAS have great potential, but we have to understand and design them as socio-technical systems”.

The scientists explain, that the KAS developed in the Kern project, are intended to help employees to develop their skills further in their everyday work and ideally to do so precisely and interactively. “In this way, individual needs and company goals are to be taken into account equally and a framework is to be created in which employees can continue their education in an economically and motivated manner and built up their skills correctly.”

The Kern project is coordinated by KIT and carried out in cooperation with the partners SAP SE, TÜV Rheinland Akademie GmbH, Campusjäger GmbH, and B. Braun Melsungen AG. It is funded with 1.36 million euros by the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (BMAS) as part of the New Quality of Work Initiative (INQA).

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