Dell is creating an inclusive workforce thanks to LISA

AI-infused technology allows deaf and hard-of-hearing workers to communicate with sign language

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Tell me if you’ve heard this phrase before: “We just can’t find enough workers. We’d hire them if we could, but they just aren’t available.”

It’s a familiar story in boardrooms across the country, and the world for that matter. In January, Descartes Systems released a report called, “How bad is the supply chain and logistics workforce challenge?” It found that 76% of supply chain operations were experiencing a notable workforce shortage, and 61% said it was extreme.

Finding productive workers

So where are the workers? It turns out they are there—if you just know where to look. While many companies seek out workers through traditional means, others are creating inclusive workforces that offer opportunities for those on the margins that are often left unemployed, or underemployed.

Dell Technologies is one of those companies.

“In Brazil, we have about 20% of our manufacturing floor [workers] with a disability and half of them are deaf or hard of hearing, and many of these people can’t even read. They’re illiterate,” explained Jerry Liu, senior vice president of procurement & strategy at Dell Technologies, during a presentation on at the recent Gartner Symposium/XPO in Orlando. “It’s not as easy as going to a terminal … and click and read up on stuff. You actually need a translator to go and access all your personal data, your policy data, et cetera. This is another barrier that creates a digital divide for us.”

Inside the data

In the U.S. the Chamber of Commerce estimated that on May 13, data indicated there are 8.5 million job openings in the country, but only 6.5 million unemployed workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that just 22.5% of people with a disability were employed. The employment rate for those without a disability was 65.8%.

Now, not all people with disabilities are able to work certain jobs, or are even looking for a job (just like the general population), but BLS estimates 13% of the U.S. population has a disability, with 50% of those over the age of 65. The government agency also said that about 29% of people with a disability who were employed worked part time. Across all age brackets, people with a disability were more likely to not be in the labor force (neither unemployed nor looking for a job) compared to those without a disability.

When those with disabilities do enter the workforce, they are more likely to be paid substandard wages. In fact, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, an estimated 120,000 disabled workers were making less than $3.50 an hour across the 37 states where it is legal to pay these workers subminimum wage.

Creating an inclusive workforce

In many ways, there appears to be a need for employment among those with disabilities, and companies looking for a productive workforce. Yet, more often than not, barriers still exist. In Dell’s case, it was how to support deaf or hard-of-hearing workers in Brazil. The company had systems in place to support the work station, but not when employees left those areas.

“Once you leave the factory, we didn’t have a solution,” Liu said. “If you follow them through the canteen, through the work process outside the factory, how do you help with their lives? That’s where LISA was created.”

LISA is an interactive, AI-generated technology Dell developed to help is deaf and hard-of-hearing employees communicate with departments such as human resources in its Brazilian locations. (Photo: Dell) 

Who is LISA?

“We talk about inclusion, not only in our workforce. We talk about gender minorities. We talk about LGBTQ. We even have supplier diversity, right? Veterans suppliers, historic owners, [we] develop business zones, et cetera. So diversity inclusion is one of our core values,” noted Liu.

So who is LISA? LISA is Dell’s language interactive support assistant, LISA for short. Dell found that to best support deaf or hard-of-hearing workers, it needed a tool that allowed them to communicate. That tool is LISA, which leverages AI to create a virtual assistant for these workers, allowing them to interact with the assistant and coworkers. Liu noted that the World Health Organization says that 16% of the global population has some disability and about one-third are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

A worker accesses LISA through a terminal and communicates with LISA using sign language. LISA has even been able to adapt to the different dialects of sign language in Brazil. Sign language, just like spoken language, can vary from country to country, and even region to region inside countries.

Liu said employees simply turn on their device’s camera and LISA serves as their interpreter. Right now, there are 14 scenarios designed into the LISA system, many of them human resources-related scenarios such as timesheet maintenance, vacation requests, wellness and daycare assistance, emotional wellbeing solutions, healthcare and meal and food vouchers.

Dell continues to accept suggestions from employees and has more than 200 additional possible workplace scenarios that it can incorporate into the system as the need arises. It is also scalable into additional countries and can be reversed to allow a deaf or hard-of-hearing person to train a hearing person, allowing the opportunity to those workers to advance in their careers.

“People are dialing in [because] they’ve got issues and they can turn on their camera and instead of having an interpreter, you can actually go and facilitate the discussion just using LISA,” Liu said.

The power of technology

LISA, which went through three iterations before it was introduced, is just the tip of the iceberg for Dell, which also uses a mobile Android application that converts sounds captured in the industry environment into images, allowing deaf team members to operate in areas that might be challenging or to work as product sound testers, among other jobs. Dell is also using augmented reality to gamify the training environment to make it more inclusive for all employees, and some workers are using a device called “Steve,” which is an exoskeleton-like wheelchair that enables workers in wheelchairs to reach a standing position at workstations when required. This increases the range of positions available for employment and advancement.

Dell is an example of a company that is doing what it can to include people with disabilities in its workforce, tapping into an underutilized workforce that can help close the worker shortage gaps we hear too much about. And it is doing it with technology, which is opening new doors to building an inclusive workforce.

Liu concluded his presentation with a Spider-Man analogy.

“I go back to Dell’s purpose to create technologies that drive human progress,” he said. “For those of you that watched Spider-Man … and Dave was talking to Peter Parker and Uncle Ben said, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ And that’s what I think about what Dell is doing.”

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Using AI, Dell has created a tool that allows deaf or hard-of-hearing employees to engage with company services without the need for a sign language interpreter.
(Photo: (Photo: Dell))
Using AI, Dell has created a tool that allows deaf or hard-of-hearing employees to engage with company services without the need for a sign language interpreter.

About the Author

Brian Straight, SCMR Editor in Chief
Brian Straight's Bio Photo

Brian Straight is the Editor in Chief of Supply Chain Management Review. He has covered trucking, logistics and the broader supply chain for more than 15 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children. He can be reached at [email protected], @TruckingTalk, on LinkedIn, or by phone at 774-440-3870.

View Brian's author profile.

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