You're About to be Surrounded by Chatty Automated Coworkers

Voice-powered smart assistants are a hit among consumers, and now their sights are set on storming the enterprise.

Ready or not, you’re about to be surrounded by new coworkers—voice-powered, AI-enabled smart bots that will soon be playing a vital role in helping your teams to collaborate better. These smart bots will be unleashing otherwise hidden potential and even serving as helpful data administrative assistants, data strategists and IT admins from time to time.

Of course, these coworkers won’t come with flashy new degrees. They’ll be backed, instead, by today’s continuously improving voice recognition technologies and conversational user interfaces (popularized by Siri and Alexa), machine learning and new APIs that liberate troves of data, and ride the success of enterprise chat software such as HipChat. 

Consumer Tech Takes on Enterprise Role

This arrival of enterprise smart bots shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, as they’ve been surging in use among consumers for some time now. The market research and consulting firm Tractica expects the number of consumers using intelligent assistants to reach 1.8 billion by 2021, up from roughly 390 million users today. While enterprise use is expectedly much less prevalent, it certainly isn’t a slacker of a market. According to Tractica, during that same period, unique active enterprise virtual data assistants will grow from 155 million to 843 million.

“The consumer and enterprise use cases for virtual digital assistants are proliferating rapidly thanks to accelerated innovation and scalability of underlying technologies, such as natural language processing and artificial intelligence,” principal analyst Mark Beccue said in this statement. “Meanwhile, most of the world’s technology giants believe VDAs will be vital to their businesses in the future, and they are investing significant resources to capture market share at this early stage.”

A primary point of entry for these smart bots will be through enterprise chat and the integration of Siri- and Alexa-like conversational user interfaces. The industry is already seeing voice-enabled virtual assistants slide into the enterprise through integration with major endpoint operating systems, first in Microsoft 10 and Cortana and then with 2016 Siri in MacOS. Moving this functionality to enterprise chat just makes sense, as these platforms are already part of the trend to democratize worker access to teams and other experts in their organization, and many bots already exist to help make sense of larger information, streamlining collaborative efforts. Sometimes, they even play the role of admin assistants, launching workloads and helping to manage IT systems. These smart bots will certainly feature in the future of the workplace. 

Chatbots Unlock Value Hidden in the Enterprise

Unlocking that intelligence and data with a chat voice interface is just a natural next step. There are already rudimentary integrations with enterprise applications and smart assistants such as Alexa to gather information or even kick off macros. For instance, the enterprise chat platform HipChat now has integration capabilities with software maker SoftServe’s VoiceMyBot for Alexa. “VoiceMyBot for Alexa is the first of its kind that allows Alexa to utilize the easiest and most efficient form of communication: human speech. By harnessing the power of our most natural form of communication, we can take the idea of ChatOps to an unprecedented level,” wrote Hipchat’s Alissa Anderegg in a blog post announcing the integration.

With the integration, users can access HipChat capabilities using Amazon Echo. Once Alexa is connected to HipChat, users can teach it commands to check system status and even deploy software.

“This ‘speak to do’ framework streamlines communication to its fastest and most basic form. Don’t see a command you want? Thanks to Alexa’s open API, you can easily add custom integrations,” Anderegg said in her post.

Eventually, powered by machine learning and AI, virtual assistants will also learn about their users, the team and the nature of the entire organization in terms of work and preference patterns. Perhaps the bots will one day even be able to anticipate which information a particular user wanted to see, whether or not that user asked. As most of these voice-powered bots come with open APIs and development platforms, this trend will accelerate to the point where soon we will see enterprises building their own custom bots.  

Workers, especially younger ones, expect their enterprise app experiences to closely match their app experiences as consumers. This will increasingly mean interfacing with smart bots in natural language.”

— George V. Hulme, business technology writer

Bots to Tap Enterprise Data

The smart bots will also help unleash all the hidden knowledge that is spread throughout the enterprise in the form of unstructured data. In fact, the research firm IDC estimates that unstructured data accounts for about 90 percent of all digital data in an enterprise. In a Rage Frameworks report, Can Artificial Intelligence Deliver for Today’s Enterprise, respondents who were considering AI were hoping that data and other benefits would boost their bottom lines. Survey respondents’ motivations included revenue generation (61 percent), cost reduction (50 percent), better strategic management and investment decisions (46 percent), and attainment of greater business intelligence and insights (43 percent). A fourth (20 percent) of respondents hoped for all of those benefits.

What does all of this mean for enterprises? It means that enterprises had better develop a strategy for their utilization of smart bots in the near future. Workers, especially younger ones, expect their enterprise app experiences to closely match their app experiences as consumers. This will increasingly mean interfacing with smart bots in natural language. And especially so, as work is now being done more and more through keyboard-free modes of computing—by phone, tablet, watch and IoT voice-enabled devices—so chat interface will undoubtedly become more important.

And how should enterprises plan to embrace smart bots? It’s too soon to say how successful voice-powered smart bots will be in the enterprise, but there will clearly be an impact and smart bots will be important. Forward-looking enterprises should approach the concept with an open mind and take a top-down and bottom-up strategy. That is, provide internal developers the voice-enabled smart bot platforms and toolsets needed to build the smart bots business that IT leaders know they need while also helping line-of-business teams and so-called ‘citizen developers’ to build their own smart bots and see what coworkers decide to create for themselves.

George V. Hulme
By George V. Hulme | February 01, 2017

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