The rise of AI in the workplace:

Interview with Catalina Schveninger, Global Head of Learning at Vodafone

How long have you been interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Did this begin as a personal interest, or was it more professionally linked?

It has certainly been more heightened in the past couple of years, and this was through a combination of personal and professional interests. Personally, I had always liked ‘sci-fi’ or augmented reality films like Minority Report and Blade Runner and I love to read about technology too. Working at Vodafone I am exposed to innovation in technology and we talk about AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) very regularly. My passion for augmented reality is now becoming actual reality. It is science-fiction minus the fiction and it really excites me.

There is growing interest and also some trepidation around AI and machine learning. What would you highlight as the key areas of excitement and concern from business leaders about the potential of AI?

I really feel excited and positive about AI. I believe that there are so many opportunities to leverage this technology to achieve a far greater outcome for society and the environment. Looking at it from a global perspective, there are so many AI companies and technology start-ups that are supporting all of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and this is truly exciting. Examples include accurate disease risk management, minimising and controlling addiction and preventing crop disease and loss.

At Vodafone our Foundation has rolled out an app called DreamLab which is using untapped processing power from phones when they are being charged overnight to help support vital cancer research. The campaign #sleeplikeahero is just one of the many ways that a variety of businesses are using AI for good to address some of the world’s toughest challenges.

One of the most influential figures on AI is Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google. He believes that there is a real need to democratise the technology for the greater good, instead of a few lucky ones having access to it.

It is quite a complex concept, and we do need to ensure that this increased complexity does not make it more difficult to access or scrutinise what it does. This is where concerns were raised by the late Professor Hawking and these are views that are taken very seriously. Biases can creep into the build of sophisticated algorithms. The example of Tay, the chatbot introduced by Microsoft in 2016 on Twitter for 24 hours until it was removed because it was demonstrating racist and misogynistic bias, does show that there is still a good way to go in terms of understanding the speed and capabilities of AI and that greater scrutiny of its complexities need to be undertaken.

How much influence do you believe the media and wider commentators have in driving forward, or limiting, the advancement of machine learning and AI?

The media plays a massive role in influencing public opinion and stakeholders on AI, and there is a particular thirst in this area at the moment. There is a continuous stream of stories about AI and related technology, particularly focused on when it goes wrong. I believe this sensationalist approach is fuelled by a greater desire to sell publications and content and really should be balanced with good news stories. AI can augment life, deliver greater sustainability and preservation of our environment and improve efficiencies in so many areas.

I would not deny that the media does have an important role to play when something does go wrong, as highlighted very recently with the Cambridge Analytica news, but I do think in general a more balanced view would benefit a wider segment of society and allow far greater democratisation of technology.

Within Vodafone AI is being used to enhance the HR process and employee experience. Can you give a brief overview of how you have approached the challenge of upskilling the HR function to deliver this?

I think our functions have taken a massive shift in focus and skills and areas. Looking at the past the core skills of HR staff were focused on areas such as employee relations, union relations, compensation and benefits and organisational design. The hard skills required now are much more blended between ‘pure’ HR and other functions such as communications, digital marketing and technology. This means there has been a massive modification in the type of experience and background that HR employees need to have and greatly increases competition from other areas.

For Vodafone there is a clear spotlight on both the customer and employee experience and technology is the major enabler for this. In order to partner well with IT, the HR teams must, at a minimum, be able to write a good brief about how technology fits into, and can enhance, the experience. This knowledge helps with the credibility of the function too. In Vodafone we firmly believe that everybody can both learn the new digital skills. We are giving a lot of people in our HR function exposure to technology, but ultimately they are responsible for their own learning. We have a lot of resources and opportunities available to them.

What key benefits has this brought to organisational leadership within the organisation?
We have a new function in our global centre of expertise looking at enhancing employee journeys, many of which are cross-functional and mostly underpinned by technologies like AI and automation. The driver for this is quite simple: the better the experience they have at work, the more likely they are to stay with the company, be immersed in the brand and be motivated to deliver great work for our customers.

More broadly, within the field of machine learning and AI is there anyone you particularly admire?

Google Deep Mind is one of my favourites – their mantra of solving intelligence through research is very inspiring. They are based in London and hire an intellectually diverse team to focus on general AI research, including UX designers to help make research tools, and even ecologists, in addition to big data scientists and software engineers. IBM Watson is another one that I am very impressed by, and their tools for HR are among the best of breed.


Catalina Schveninger joined Vodafone in its London HQ in March 2014. Previously, Catalina was a Board member and HR Director of T-Mobile in The Netherlands.

She began her international HR career in 2002 as a member of the Human Resources Leadership Program at GE and held different roles in the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium until she was appointed as HR EMEA Director of GE’s Security division (a division that was acquired by UTC).

A mother of two, Catalina is an NLP and Transactional Analysis practitioner and is a passionate advocate for the attraction and development of talented women. With a keen interest in technology, she is driving forward the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation across the HR function within Vodafone.

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