Chatbots are a recurring theme among intranet, digital workplace and internal professionals. With so much hype and attention, it’s easy to dismiss chatbots as a fad. It’s true that some of the current media focus is being driven by vendors trying to get their message across and there may be some inflated claims about current capabilities, particularly with reference to “artificial intelligence”.
But in our view, if you look beyond the hype, chatbots have a real chance of becoming a permanent feature in the digital workplace.
What is a chatbot?
A chatbot is a programme that simulates conversation, prompting natural language responses to effectively “chat” with a user. Chatbots have now been in the consumer space for a while and are delivered through websites (for example CNN’s bite-sized news), messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook and even by SMS.
There are also digital assistants like Cortana, Siri and Amazon’s Echo, which are voice-activated. The team at Apple have even given Siri some personality through some clever and amusing responses.
Are chatbots here to stay?
In the digital workplace, chatbots are still at a very early phase. One of the most commonly used bots is in Slack where the “Slackbot” is used for integration and automated announcements, mainly to show events from other systems, although there is some conversational ability.
Many companies have now moved forward and are actively experimenting with specific chatbots. Some are even early adopters.
A number of other factors are also at play. Here’s seven reasons why we believe chatbots will become key interfaces in the digital workplace.
1. There’s a familiar pattern recurring
Taking a helicopter view of the development of workplace technologies, including those appearing in intranets, reveals a common pattern. Social technologies, mobile development, intranet design trends and even search features have first flourished in the consumer space and then evolved to the digital workplace.
With chatbots “all systems go” in the consumer world (albeit subject to some notable failures) we can trace a path similar to that of other features which are now commonplace in the digital workplace. The conversational interfaces operating today in the web will appear tomorrow for employees to use.
2. There’s obvious value for the digital workplace
The attraction of chatbots for the world of internal communications and the digital workplace is clear. Within the digital workplace, employees need to find information quickly, complete tasks and carry out transactions. A chatbot creates another very convenient interface (along with search, navigation, traditional homepages and even dashboards) for employees to find what they need and to get things done.
This means there are a number of very specific use cases where using a chatbot makes obvious sense for employees . When we brainstormed this at an ILF meeting, suggestions included finding out a leave balance, booking a meeting room, finding the expenses form and then even completing that form.
3. A chatbot ecosystem is developing
Inevitably when there is a technical and commercial opportunit, the market responds. That’s happening with chatbots with the emergence of a development and vendor ecosystem which is creating and extending the opportunities around chatbots.
- a growth of chatbot development frameworks including Microsoft’s bot framework
- messaging platforms like Facebook are making it easier for chatbots to be deployed
- numerous development agencies, vendors and consultancies are offering services and products including ways for non-technical staff to build their own chatbots
- internal communications and intranet experts are extending their skills into the chatbot world.
The growth in the number of options, experts and (cheaper) services are removing some of the barriers for teams looking to deploy a chatbot.
4. Chatbots are happening now in the digital workplace
Although there are still aren’t that many publicly available case studies of chatbots, there are a few early adopters. We believe more companies are now actively experimenting with chatbots, investigating the possibilities or have recently implemented one.
This is reflected in our conversations with clients and digital teams across the world, as well as the entries to our Intranet and Digital Workplace Awards where chatbots are starting to appear or are planned. Organisations are also actively experimenting with voice activation, for example using an Amazon Echo device in a meeting room to control room temperature.
5. There’s a rise in workplace messaging platforms
One of the reasons for the growth of chatbots is the uptick in the use of messaging services by employees which provide an effective channel for chatbots. The most obvious one has been Slack but there are also other services such as Work Chat (in Workplace by Facebook), and Skype for Business.
Currently a platform like Workplace for Facebook has limited ability to convincingly present a navigation or structured content. A conversational interface is a far more suitable way for employees to find an item in a structured way or complete a transaction.
Facebook itself has implemented over 100 chatbots relating to work processes and transactions, often with integration with other systems. Facebook is also encouraging its partners to develop more chatbots.
6. Chatbots are made for mobile
One advantage of a conversational interface is that it is essentially a discussion or a feed. It is simple and straightforward. No complex data visualisation is required. Because of this simplicity a chatbot can be experienced simply on a mobile device, probably through a messaging app already optimised for mobile.
Overall digital workplaces have been very slow to reach out to frontline employees located in factories, retail outlets and the field. At last we’re seeing a little bit of movement in this through mobile services, and chatbots have the potential to be a powerful way to get these employees to interact in the digital workplace in a convenient, efficient and intuitive way.
7. Chatbots fit into the future, intelligent workplace
The expected trajectory for chatbots is that they are going to get even smarter, both in their responses and also their ability to learn. As digital workplaces become smarter and utilise a variety of data to deliver even more personalised, efficient and relevant services, the parallel evolution of chatbots is likely.
Chatbots are usually presented as a branch of artificial intelligence but currently not all chatbots are able to learn. Some are just rules-based responses to different trigger words. Even in these cases, the development of chatbots is an extension of what some teams are already doing around extending search algorithms and creating the ability to complete transactions from within search cards or on quasi-dashboards.
Chatbots fit firmly into the roadmap of the future, smarter digital workplace.
Here to stay!
Of course, we could be wrong. This might be one of the articles you Google in 10 years’ time and have a bit of a chuckle because things didn’t quite work out in that way. But our hunch is that chatbots are here to stay in the digital workplace.
Inevitably there will be a backlash and a period of dissatisfaction when some of the current experiments and implementations fail, but the experimentation is critical to advancing an exciting new type of interface which can really help employees get their work done.