Smart Bots Are Taking Business Software by Storm

02/11/2017 07:58 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2017

You would think that if your employer is a profitable and progressive company that it would be equipped with powerful, cutting edge technology, too. But in companies of all shapes and sizes, including some of the most successful in the world, technology lags painfully far behind.

The contrast is striking. An employee can walk out the door in the morning to a car that has already been turned on by mobile app, audibly tell a smart device to turn off the house lights, and drive to work while a virtual assistant tells them what time their dry cleaning will be ready and what the weather forecast is for the week. But as soon as they get to work it is like they have stepped through a portal to an era two decades ago when technology was cumbersome and non-intuitive.

Enterprise software can be terrible. But a new trend in business technology has set its sights on modernizing that landscape. The trend is a comprehensive suite of services that utilizes artificial intelligence, smart bots, micro applications, and communication platforms to make business software comparable to the technology we are accustomed to at home.

I wanted to know more so I asked Sean Nolan, founder and CEO of Blink and a thought leader in this space, to explain how this technology works.

Sean Nolan, Founder and CEO of Blink
Sean Nolan, Founder and CEO of Blink

Q: Everyone is generally aware that enterprise software is lagging behind, but in your opinion is it worse than people think?

I think we’ve become slightly desensitized to how bad it really is. We’ve had the same desktop experience at work for over 20 years now, while our personal lives have been transformed by amazing web apps, smartphones and more recently devices like the Amazon Echo. The gap is widening every day and that trend is accelerating.

At home I can search Google Photos for a picture of me eating pizza in New York and have the result instantly. I can open Netflix, have something new suggested to me and be watching it within three seconds. And while watching Netflix I can book a flight on my tablet, check my credit card on my mobile phone and check out my niece’s birthday pics on WhatsApp. Compare that to finding a document at work, or arranging travel at work, or raising a purchase order to buy something at work. It is a terrible experience and it suffers by comparison to what we know technology can do.

Social performance management company Rypple found 36% of wasted time is spent trying to contact people, find information and schedule meetings.

But it’s not just the software - it’s the bad habits, inefficiencies and office politics the software fuels. We are all procrastinators by nature, and at work if we need to switch apps or platforms to do something, we put it off. We all hate long, complicated email threads but there is no alternative, so we all do it.

For further reading on this check out Blink’s blog post: 6 Ways Personal Technology is Better Than Office Technology

Q: A frequent complaint about enterprise software is that it lacks social functions - do you think those are important for company morale and productivity or just a preference among millennials?

Communication is central to so much of what we do at work. The odd thing right now is that communication happens in a separate place to where the content is. The content could be a new customer enquiry, a travel request, a report we’re writing, or a question from a customer. But we have to switch apps away from that content in order to communicate - that’s just inefficient.

I don’t think it’s just millennials - we all experience the benefits of getting things done quickly on our phones. We experience the benefit of content and communication being inside the same app - whether that’s Facebook or Snapchat.

Workplace messaging platforms let you bring everything together in one place, resulting in significant productivity gains. I think this will transcend generations - after all, who wants to spend longer at work?

Q: Chat bots have been around for years, why are they making such a big comeback recently?

Two major factors are contributing to this. Firstly, artificial intelligence, and, in particular, natural language processing has reached a point where machines are matching humans for understanding. In fact they have now overtaken us - in October, Microsoft reached 94.1% accuracy in a speech recognition system that makes fewer errors than professional transcriptionists.

Secondly, we now spend most of our time in messaging apps - so if that’s where we’re living, why do we need to switch apps? Why do we need to go through the hassle of downloading lots of apps? Putting everything in one place, with security, identity, payments and everything else provided centrally, is a more engaging and user friendly experience.

“...we now spend most of our time in messaging apps - so if that’s where we’re living, why do we need to switch apps?... Putt
Copyright: neyro2008 / 123RF Stock Photo
“...we now spend most of our time in messaging apps - so if that’s where we’re living, why do we need to switch apps?... Putting everything in one place, with security, identity, payments and everything else provided centrally, is a more engaging and user friendly experience.”

Q: When you present Blink to executives, do they quickly see the vision for making everything easier? Or do many of them still perceive technology in utilitarian, "only the essentials" terms?

Everyone is on the same journey, but some people are ahead. Everyone now realises they need to become a digital business in order to survive, and most businesses now realise they need to disrupt themselves internally, or a start-up will come along and disrupt them into extinction. But internally, and with tools like Blink, they are torn - it is easier and safer to stay with the familiar old Microsoft apps, the way things have always been done. But you can’t do these things in halves, you can’t be a digital business externally and stay analogue internally. If anything, internal transformation has to happen first.

Q: Where does this technology go from here? What can business bots do in five years?

Technology is getting smaller and smaller, until it will all but disappear. Both in form factor, with voice and AR, but also conceptually it will become more predictive. So we’ll have to ‘manually’ interact with technology less and less as it starts to anticipate our needs.

The first step to this is to unify existing applications and workflows behind new interfaces - today that’s messaging or voice. These interfaces can then apply intelligence to data in order to help people achieve tasks much more quickly. Bots will help us all by becoming our virtual assistants, helping us throughout the day, reminding us, automating common tasks and answering queries on our behalf.

Businesses might perceive these technologies as a challenge right now, but they are also an opportunity for them to become more agile and fast-moving. That means competitive advantage for the ones who act to digitise their workplaces now.

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