It’s Time to Transform ERP into a System of Engagement

The IT industry has steadily been moving beyond its roots in data management and record keeping for a few decades now, approximately since the advent of corporate e-mail. As I’ve tracked over the years, this trend is more broadly known as the shift from systems of record to systems of engagement. Over the years, we’ve witnessed how the value of IT systems grows dramatically when they focus as much on connecting people and systems together with as little friction as possible, as they do on storing and retrieving information.

We’ve also collectively learned as an industry that one-size-fits-all technology, especially in the enterprise, often ends up fitting the needs much fewer people than we expect. Put simply, despite all countless industry lessons learned, enterprise systems are still far too unwieldy, adapted poorly to individual users needs, difficult to use, and an impediment towards value creation, especially at the edges of our organization, where key business activities such as sales, marketing, service delivery, and customer care take place.

Today’s Successful Enterprise Systems Engage Effectively

In recent years, new highly personal forms of digital engagement have demonstrated a new path to us through the large scale global success of social media, use-anywhere smart mobile devices, and consumer apps that are essentially effortless to acquire and use.

When I look at most enterprise IT today however, it’s clear that the buyer is not the end-user but IT departments and other stakeholders who won’t have to use the systems themselves. The traditional ERP system, which runs much of the mission critical infrastructure, is possibly the worst offender and most in need of remediation in today’s era of highly consumable personal IT, which runs rings around most enterprise technology when it comes to usability, personalization, fitness to purpose, and responsive design.

The Contemporary Enterprise: Systems of Records and Systems of Engagement

Certainly, enterprise systems often have a very different set of goals than consumer IT, including much higher levels of security, more rigor in data structure and quality, complex operating requirements, and other factors that consumer IT simply doesn’t have to contend with. I’d argue these are, however, just not valid excuses for meeting the standards of modern IT systems when it comes to improving productivity, usefulness, and effective results in our organization. As I’ve long argued, we need to unclog the arteries of enterprise IT for competitive reasons as well as basic employee retention, given trends I’m seeing in end-user expectations of how IT systems should work.

At this point in IT industry evolution, I’d argue that the nature of the enterprise procurement process, along the roles of those typically charged with IT acquisition each conspire against the kinds of systems that users — and the business itself — would find more useful and productive in getting their work done. Plenty of evidence now shows that usability and accessibility have large benefits when it comes to getting results from enterprise IT.

An actual data point from the respected Nielsen Norman Group serves to make the point here: Allocating a mere 10% of the budget of your IT system to usability will approximately double the quality metrics for the system. Yet few projects allocate anything like this amount, especially to off-the-shelf systems.

Modernizing the ERP for Engagement by Augmenting It

So how can we overhaul the poor effectiveness of today’s ERP systems and bring the latest advances in today’s systems of engagement to bear to increase the poor usability of ERP systems that Jon Innes famously lamented back in 2010.

Given the slow rate of change in the usability and reach of ERP systems over the years, I’d now argue that we’re not going to see a major improvement in the design of ERP systems themselves. Instead, I now see that enterprises, which have invested enormous amounts in their existing enterprise systems, have little choice from most of the leading vendors. Instead, the typical ERP system should instead be augmented with the capabilities that will provide the full measure of value creation that was originally hoped for.

To this end, I’ve authored a new white paper that lays out my analysis that we’re about to enter a new era of enterprise IT. One that is not just more consumerized and highly usable, but focused on both the needs of the business and end-user both. By augmented ERP with effective systems of record, most organization can now take the power of today’s sophisticated ERP systems and extend them to wherever they are needed in a far more personalized, dynamic, and focused way.

As a new generation of IT thinking emerges, I now see that this will be the pattern of ERP and most enterprise IT systems, in that they will become a fusion of capable foundational systems of record and systems of engagement. The latter will either be purpose-built or developed by a new generation of enterprise IT companies that understand the new generation of IT, consumerization, design thinking, and usability on top of traditional IT requirements.

How ERP Will Become the New Systems of Engagement White Paper by Dion Hinchcliffe

Credit: I’d like to thank Capriza for making my time available for the research and analysis that went into this white paper, which is freely available for download.

Vital Trends in Digital Experience and Transformation in 2016

This year I was invited again to come to Dreamforce in San Francisco and present on the latest developments in digital experience and digital transformation for the conference’s Emerging Tech Trends track. Surprisingly well-attended given the satellite location of the track at the Hilton Union Square, having to prepare this session is always a good opportunity for me to go over my research in the last year and map out what’s likely going to happen next.

For myself at least, it’s clear that human change has become closely linked to and as important as digital change, so I have divided up the trends list in the last two years into a tech dimension and a human dimension.

The bottom line: How we think, work, and react as people has tremendous impact on the usefulness and effectiveness of emerging technology. It’s what separates the digital native from those who are just beginning the journey. For example, those not inclined to share information won’t get much use from the technologies and techniques of social business, nor will those who are uncomfortable and unused to spending time in virtual worlds be able to take advantage of the rich opportunities of virtual reality. And if we’re not changing our leadership skills to be more network-centric as opposed to hierarchy-centric, then much of the business value of digital experience and engagement is wasted on us. The list goes on.

What’s more, not only are we co-evolving with our tech, but we need to understand how we need to change just as much as the technology is changing. This is required in order to a) understand the art of the possible and b) to be able to access technology’s unique and historic new value propositions.

What's Next in Digital and Social Experience and Digital Transformation in 2016

Another point I make early in the presentation is the technology is changing exponentially right now and has climbed into a rather steep part of the curve, yet our organizations just don’t change on the same curve. Instead, we change far more linearly, at best logarithmically (see slide 8.) That’s not to say that that enterprises can’t organize themselves to change much faster, but in order to do so we must employ fundamentally new ways to transform organizations. Certainly, some organizations are adapting faster and digital transforming more sustainably (see data on slide 4.)

Sidebar: I’ve recently been exploring what these new models for sustainable yet highly scalable models for digital transformation, even proving them out on client projects I’ve been working on over the last few years. The key seems to be a more network-based, decentralized, and emergent approach I’ve called a Network of Excellence.

Emergent Tech Trends Inputs

For this year’s round-up of emerging tech trends, in addition to original research, I used as inputs several items:

Major new additions to the list include digital assistants/bots/chatbots, blockchain, omnichannel, workplace app integration, and collaborative EMRs, along with significant tweaks in a variety of the existing trends.

You can see the whole deck with an overview of each trend on Slideshare. I’ll post any video that is produced as well.

Also, in other Dreamforce news, you can review my live blog of the main Dreamforce keynote as well as my current assessment this week of the Salesforce platform and ecosystem.

Additional Reading

Digital priorities for the CIO in 2016 | ZDNet

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation: Community, Tech, Business Models, and a Change Platform

Seeking a Modern Foundation for the Digital Workplace

Take a few minutes and try to imagine the workplace of the near future. What does it look like? Some of the likely items to consider are these:

  • Are mobile, cloud-based productivity and collaboration apps the center of the next-generation digital workplace?
  • Will we all switch over from e-mail to Slack-like lightweight messaging services supported by contextual apps and intelligent chatbots?
  • Will the workplace of the future be contained almost entirely inside virtual reality experiences that provide ultra-realistic online workplaces, complete with engaging avatars of our co-workers and AI-based assistants?
  • Will social networks and online communities become the leading way that we manage our organizations and conduct our work?
  • Will we soon control everything with our voices, gestures, and even our thoughts?

Almost certainly the answer is yes to all of these questions, and many similar ones. It’s just a matter of when. The reason it’s important to ask them, however, is that we learn very much about what we should do today by looking at where we will be tomorrow with digital work.

What’s the Organizing Principle of Digital Work?

As part of asking these questions, recently I’ve been trying to seek the answer to what the organizing principle of the digital workplace should be. The top models have shifted many times over the years, and we even had a sort of crisis in the early 2010s when we had so many competing choices, rapidly shifting technologies, and important discoveries of new digital workplace skills like mass collaboration, crowdsourcing, and Working Out Loud, to name a few. Uncertainly reined and the path forward was unclear for many. It didn’t help that far too many of us still thought about the digital workplace in primarily tech terms, instead of emphasizing that it is only by enabling people with new workplace concepts, skills, tools and techniques that we can become successful in working in new ways.

In fact, as a primary symptom of this issue, I still find that most IT departments use pure technology adoption as the primary measure of success, rather than the business metrics or KPI improvements that actually matter. With a tech-first mindset, it’s as if merely using a digital tool is somehow equivalent to effectiveness or creating measurable value. An important subject for another time, however.

The Evolution of Foundational Technology of the Digital Workplace: file servers, chat, team messaging, unified communications, enterprise social networks, portals, intranets, file sync and sharing

It’s clear to me, after being in the space for two decades, is that we generally have poor ability to balance the tech and the people in our digital workplace strategies. Admittedly, it’s a tough balancing act: If we focus too much outside the technology, we lose the insight required to see how emerging new types of digital tools directly guide us towards powerful new models of working (such as “Let the Network Do the Work“.) If we focus too much on the technology, we lose the insight required to see best how to bring the people in the workforce along with us.

However, if we can identify the right organizing principle — which gives us an effective way to think and reason about the digital workplace that provides the right mental guardrails to ensure we keep a good balance — then we are more likely to succeed. However, it’s evident that we’ve not yet hit upon the right mental framework that allows the average organization to reach the next level of the digital workplace, and its attendant benefits.

Social Business Was A Breakthrough, But Not Complete

To be sure, we’re getting closer. The idea of social business as an umbrella set of ideas for the future of work is probably got as far as any concept has managed to get in the broader marketplace. As my co-author of Social Business By Design, Peter Kim, defined it, social business is about enabling people through the nearly unlimited possibilities given to us through relentless global innovation of the network technologies that have essentially remade the entire world in the last twenty-five years:

“A social business harnesses fundamental tendencies in human behavior via emerging technology to improve strategic and tactical outcomes.”

Thus any digital workplace that doesn’t tap into the innate tendencies of both people and digital networks will be at a disadvantage over time, often profoundly. We can already see this if we look at the performance data for workplace technologies like enterprise social networks — a key foundational technology of social business — that has been captured over the years by McKinsey and numerous others.

But as I’ve observed recently by contrasting it with the emerging model of digital experience management, social business is not a complete (nor was it intended to be) view of the digital world of work. It’s just a very important way of looking at better ways to conduct our work through collaboration and engagement. But it still doesn’t encompass all the ways that digital is transforming both the workplace and the people in it.

Yet for the foreseeable future, it is in fact technology that is largely leading the discussion when it comes to new ways of working, given that is has been more successful than anything else in raising productivity and producing growth in the last few decades. But as those that have spent their life studying it, as famed economist Robert Gordon noted recently, it often takes us a long time to figure out how to achieve the benefits. Certainly there are important non-tech big concept trends today (corporate social, sustainable business, and lean enterprise come mind) but even most of the key business trends today have tech involved in them in some way.

The digital age is one reason why The Economist last year noted the profound decline in recent years of notable management gurus, who had great expertise in business and could spot important work trends, but did not as a group have the requisite digital knowledge, context, and mindset to see past the inflection point when technology began to change virtually everything we do in our organizations.

Yet Tech Now Sets the Future Of Work Agenda

Thus the evolution of key digital workplace technologies, which I’ve depicted above, is almost depressingly devoid of the people equation, largely because the industry has mostly focused on specific point tools themselves. File, documents, records, and transactions are still at the core of most on-the-ground thinking about the digital workplace, though at least conversation, collaboration, and engagement are now about as important. Now team messaging along virtual and augmented reality are on the upswing but still in early days.

Things are changing again in general in the digital workplace for a variety of reasons. This include old legacy digital workplaces aging out and younger workers having higher expectations. But the digital workplace is shifting mostly because of fast-paced innovation, tech change, and acute proliferation. As a result, we’re now seeing a more nuanced and complex conception for the digital workplace emerging; a way of thinking about connecting the pieces into a multilayered and contextual digital habitat, as opposed to a mass jumble of largely disconnected apps.

We can also see that the digital workplace wilderness that we encountered during the collaboration and app proliferation of the early 2010s was just a gentle breeze of disruption. A large raft of disruptive technology is coming to the enterprise at this very moment, and it will change the workplace more in the next 10 years than in the last 50. While we see new digital management theories such as Holacracy emerging to try to create a better defined and detailed digital organizing model for us, the reality is that any approach is subject to the same forces that dethroned the traditional gurus of management: We just can’t see how work will shift until new tech is actually upon us, forcing us to revise and rethink much of what we know in a reactive mode, rather than with forethought and strategic planning.

For this reason and others, I now believe any effective organizing principle for the digital workplace must be profoundly designed for loss of control and take into account highly emergent behavior and outcomes. I believe we’re seeing the model for information technology (IT) finally shifting in realization of this, though it will take time.

You’re Invited to Two Open Events on the New Digital Workplace

So what then should be the foundational model for work today? To help discuss this question I will be participating in two industry online events this week in which we’ll explore these topics to the fullest possible. I would like to invite you to join me in the discussion.

The first is a Town Hall Debate this Wednesday, September 14th, 2016 at 9am PT/noon ET — which I’ve humorously likened more to a cage match — with my friend, industry colleague, and content management uber guru Tony Byrne, of the Real Story Group. We’ll be grappling with all of the above and more in a live video broadcast and I hope you’ll join us and ask hard questions.

You can register for the Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration here.

Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration and Networks with Dion Hinchcliffe and Tony Byrne

The second event is a Webcast of my latest research with Jive Software’s Gili Guri-Mill where I’ll explore why the enterprise social network is emerging at the leading candidate for the foundation of the digital workplace. This will be broadcast on September 15th, 2016 at 10am PT/1pm ET, and I’ll be taking questions towards the end.

Please register for my the Webcast, titled Enterprise Social Networks: The Foundation of the Digital Workplace here.

Webcast: Enterprise Social Networks as the Foundation of the Digital Workplace by Dion Hinchcliffe

Additional Reading

What is the Future of Work?

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation: Community, Tech, Business Models, and a Change Platform

I’ve been making the argument lately that the single largest obstacle in successful digital transformation is change itself. Surprisingly, the arrival of new technology is generally not the large hurdle to becoming more digital in a meaningful way, though it certainly represents a large and growing learning curve. Yet learning the new technology is manageable by most organizations in my experience, if they have the will to do so.

Finding the right business models can be a bit more of a challenge, but the process of discovering the best ones is increasingly well understood these days. One somewhat ironic lesson is that we’ve also learned that we usually have to build an audience first, often well before we decide on new digital business models, that are centered around some activity or capability of significant shared interest with the market, before we can experiment and find the right path forward in terms of generating value, such as revenue from sales, subscriptions, advertising, etc.

Online Communities Are the Business Construct That Create the Most Value

From my Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 Paris Keynote Deck

Why Digital Needs a New Mindset

It actually turns out the most important and challenging building blocks for digital transformation is people and the processes that can change them. Thinking in digital terms requires a significant shift in mindset, such as designing for loss of control, understanding the power laws of mass connectedness, the startling revelation that the network will do most of the work, and understanding how open participation is the key to unleashing digital value in scale to our businesses.

However, shifting the mindset en masse of the large number people that exist in the average enterprise (i.e. tens or even hundreds of thousands of workers) is not something that can be done to them, but can only be done with them as Euan Semple frequently likes to point out. So, what’s the single best venue in which to engage significantly in a time efficient and sustainable fashion? I now suggest that the most likely and cost-effective vehicle for this that we know today is online community.

The building blocks of digital transformation is a topic that I recently had time to study in depth as I prepared my closing keynote for the always terrific Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 (formerly the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT) in Paris this month.

Step 1: Gather Stakeholders into Communities of Digital Change

The fundamental building block of digital transformation is therefore not technology, but people, a much more challenging proposition. However, if we can somehow connect the collective workforce in the organization together in an effective fashsion to begin a shared and dialogue-based process of learning, understanding, experimenting with, and then carrying out the tasks of digital transformation across the enterprise as a much more aligned and self-supporting way, then we are much more likely to succeed. As I’ve discussed, we’ve even started to witness evidence that IT is shifting in this direction steadily, with the rise of empowered change agents and even unexpected source of pre-existing tech change using forces like shadow IT as a key resource for creating decentralized technology adaptation across the organization.

But it all starts with community, for which I believe the evidence is now clear is the most powerful way of organizing human activity and creating shared value yet developed.

Step 2: Assemble a Modern, Market-Facing Technology Stack

From there, we do need to look at the technology lens at what our business does and how it does it. We can no longer realize all tech change ourselves, as our competitors have already learned that the single greatest force for value creation is capturing and wielding community contributions of customers by the millions via mass co-creation, and business partners by the thousands (see APIs + hackathons). I recently summarized the many other emerging enterprise technologies we must consider all the time as well, but the most important ones are customer facing and involved in co-creation.

We therefore must instead now becoming highly competent in building strong and effective architectures of participation, as most digital leaders harness the vast capacity of the Internet to do most of the value creation:

The Digital Business Stack: Marketplace Driven Engagement & Value Creation

Step 3: Create and Nurture Digital Experiments

From there we can combine people-led digital change at scale with a portfolio of digital engagement and experience technologies and processes — that must prominently include market-facing community — to begin creating, launching, and growing healthy and vibrant new products and services. Growing hacking in fact, has become an important new technique used by top Internet companies to ensure early lift and adoption, and has been a key subject of interest by top technology leaders like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. So grow the results of digital transformation this way, then generate revenue:

Digitally Transforming a Business with Growth Hacking, Business Models, and Community

Step 4: Get Serious About Revenue Models

Finally, the last building block is digital business models, which one the service has a successful audience or community, can be experimented with and validated, though certainly some services, such as sharing economy ones, can monetize from the outset, though often at break even levels. Below is a representative list of some of the most common Internet business models, though by no means all the possibilities. For example, there are at least 18 separate known business models for open APIs alone. The high level Internet business models break down like so:

Common Internet Business Models

For a more complete exploration, please view the video of my closing keynote on this subject in Paris on June 2nd, 2016:

Or download a copy of the Slideshare deck that I presented with.

Additional Reading

How IT Can Change For the Digital Era and What Leaders Can Do About It

The digital transformation conversation shifts to how

Restructuring the C-Suite for Digital Business: The Future of the CMO, CCO, CIO, and CDO

I’ve noticed lately what appears to be an emerging trend in marketing and communications leadership in some large companies. Specifically, the positions of chief marketing officer (CMO) and chief communications officer (CCO) are sometimes being consolidated into a single role, even in very large enterprises. Such consolidation has already happened at PG&E, Walgreens, and Citi, and I’ve recently encountered other notable instances as well. This might seem odd at first glance, as specialization of roles is usually emphasized in large entities as expansive purviews tend to be harder to manage.

It actually turns out, for several key reasons, that examining this closer is an interesting — and both useful and practical — thought exercise in how the single vast continuum of digital is putting growing pressure on the traditionally separated functional silos that have comprised most of our organizations for over a century.

This trend, and another like it I’ll propose we’ll see soon, is actually an apparent reversal of what organizations have been doing lately to better organize for technology, which is moving to the very center of how our organization operate and create value. In fact, the proliferation of C-level stakeholders for the rapidly expanding world of digital business has continued unabated in recent years, as chief data officers, digital officers, community officers, experience officers, analytics officers, and other similar C-level tech roles emerge and grow rapidly.

The Consolidation of the CMO and CCO for Digital Transformation

Too many cooks in the kitchen, some might say, but I pointed out last week on ZDNet that digital disruption — a wildly overused yet still quite apt phrase of our times — is now anticipated by most executives within the current planning cycle. The counter argument that is made for proliferation is that we need a lot more leadership on deck to more rapidly adapt our organizations to digital and head off disruption. The imperative is that we now have to a) think more like venture firms and startups, in other words our digital efforts have to move out of the quarter earnings cycle and become long term, while shifting to experimenting and failing fast until finding what works and b) our organizations require digital change capacity that is matched to today’s exponential cycle of technology evolution. Without both, we can’t maintain a sustainable pace matched to the market or reach a successful future state quickly enough.

In fact, what’s often hampering us in fact functional silos, both in our org structures and in our technology. We saw this very painfully with social media and social business a few years ago, and now we are witnessing it writ large as our customer experiences, the vital journey of which is the very lifeblood of our organizations, becomes ever more fragmented and divided across digital channels and our organizations’ operational silos. Customers get thrown over the wall to disorganized and inconsistent experiences as their journey takes them through our marketing departments, sales teams, customer service staff, and product development groups. Increasingly, our attempts to engage with companies as a customer is just ignored as we use new digital touchpoints that is obviously so much better — to us, but still unfamiliar to companies. In short, as organizations, we don’t have the capacity to be everywhere we are expected to be in the customer journey, and as organized today, don’t have a way to get there.

So how does the convergence of top-level roles in communications and engagement solve this problem? By removing a key silo while also adding the responsibility for both internal and external comms. Internal comms in particular is a critical addition, and is a key part of what a corporate communication officers oversee, as they are often the sponsor for the corporate ESN and intranet, essential platforms for organizing change at scale. As gaining holistic and integrated oversight and control of experience management — across customers, business partners, and employees — has become paramount, this merging of roles gives us a way to prevent it from fragmenting across projects, initiatives, technologies, tools, and digital channels. No more dividing internal and external engagement, giving us less inconsistent messaging and responses. In return, we can achieve better internal scale, more unified platforms, policies, and governance. We have one role for primary engagement.

One Likely Outcome of Digital Transformation: A Refactoring of the C-Suite

In other words, with CMO and CCO consolidation, we will have a single top-level org structure that is substantially better suited to oversee engagement across the single continuum of digital. We used to think that digital/social centers of excellence were required to bring together a consistent response to technology. This may be a better answer.

We will see how this trend plays out — and there are still open questions about where secondary engagement such as customer care and product development fit in — so I have begun tracking the industry data in LinkedIn to see if we can confirm a real trend based on my and others anecdotal experience. But from an critical thinking standpoint it makes sense why organizations are doing this.

The Fall of the Chief Digital Officer Too?

Which brings to my second trend, which is that we’ll likely see the same consolidation of function happen with the chief information officer (CIO) and the chief digital officer (CDO). I was initially bullish on the CDO a few years back — and still think they have an important combined innovation and P&L role to play, but as some like Theo Priestley have observed, the role is already under pressure and it’s time is likely to come to an end, at least as a top-level role. It will still exist of course but in this consolidation, would appear under the CIO purview. It now seems likely that many CIOs will merge CDO functions back in for all the same arguments that the CMO and CCO purviews should be combined.

Following this argument, removing silos in our organizations so that we can remove them from our digital products and experiences makes sense on its face. It can eliminate friction, make it possible to scale better, reduce poor execution, and create more shared value. I should point out however, it’s only part of the story for organizing better for digital. While other related topics like the bi-modal/multi-modal conversation seems to have hit a fever pitch, with McKinsey even joining the bandwagon, I think it’s vital that we also carefully consider simpler “digital hacks” to our organization that should be far easy to implement, but would in practice have significant impact.

Consequently, the consolidation of top digital roles into a chief marketing and communications officer (CMCO) and chief information and digital officer is — I now believe — a practical response to the proliferation of C-level digital roles to create the consistency, coherency, and effectiveness we need to change. However, this centralization will be an improvement as long as — and only as — such consolidation is properly balanced by bottom up and grassroots digital change programs, like a network of excellence powered by decentralized change agents, or a formally supported Shadow IT and marketing technology program. Without realizing both C-level role consolidation and networks of change together, sufficient digital scale and capacity will simply not exist for converged leadership to cultivate and guide.

Additional Reading

How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

The digital transformation conversation shifts to how | ZDNet

How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving the Digital/Social Experience

Digital engagement is once again shifting, as we can see from the main discussions at Facebook’s F8 conference this week about the new release of Messenger and its smart chatbots, or when we look at what’s happening with popular team messaging services like Slack, which is being “overrun by friendly, wonderful bots.” While bots seem like a minor improvement to digital user experience, some believe — including myself — that a combination of today’s latest technologies will transform this what’s-old-is-new-again technology into a major new force in contemporary digital experience and social engagement.

Over the last couple of years, conversing in everyday language with our digital devices has become relatively commonplace with the advent of widely used digital concierge services like Siri, Google Now, and Amazon Echo. Known more formally as ‘conversational user experiences (UXs)’, this dialogue-based interaction model actually has quite a long history going way back to command-line programs like Eliza and Zork (both of which yours truly spent far too much time with when younger), the first commercial expert systems in the 1980s, IRC bots, and other early examples.

Anatomy of a Chat: How Conversational UXs Add Value

While there’s always been an assumption that bots had a bit code behind them with a little situated intelligence — from performing simple services like scheduling reminders via IM all the way up to the first textual AI-based systems such as MYCIN for helping doctors diagnose infections — most conversational interfaces tend to be relatively simple affairs with a little bit of basic natural language processing connected to a decision tree.

That’s clearly about to change in a major way as the introduction of more powerful forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning are combined with new UX channels like voice, video, virtual reality (and soon enough brain/machine) into solutions designed to assist people in their daily activities. These bots will ultimately be unleashed on a) all of the visible digital data in existence, b) apply vast computing power and cutting-edge algorithms to make sense of it all, and c) provide the ability to use this knowledge to converse with us about the world in a deeply meaningful way.

Siri on Apple devices, the conversational UX I use most, has been able to handle increasingly complex and useful queries over the years, often aided by deep smarts from 3rd party services like Wolfram Alpha. Siri is a good example of the overall progress of general purpose chatbots, but it — and the others like it — are really just the tip of the iceberg. I predict you’ll see chatbots appear in almost every user interface in the near future as a way to almost completely remove the friction between our computing systems and us.

How Chatbots Will Impact Online Community

How will the rise of chatbots with AI affect the most important new digital environments for our organizations, online communities and enterprise social networks? I wondered this recently, in particular how it might affect the highly strategic and valuable role of community management. To explore this more, I posed this question yesterday on Twitter to a couple of top colleagues in the space, Rachel Happe and Carrie Basham-Young, with Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky joining in:

Chatbots for Community Management: A Twitter Conversation with Rachel Happe, Alan Lepovsky, and Carrie Basham Young

Why would chatbots help with digital leadership roles like community management? By being connected to the global activity stream and then assisting in the most fundamental — and therefore most common — community management scenarios. This would offload a very overworked role to handle routine digital enablement like helping users through common issues, basic community skill building, ensuring a basic SLA for questions and answers, and providing coaching to community/ESN users on the fly. Other likely scenarios include capturing community data and reporting on it and providing a queryable interface on community needs, hotspots, and quiet zones to improve social business adoption and drive business performance. Chatbots in this space have great potential in my opinion and we’ll soon see them more and more in the social business world.

How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence could Help Community Managers

But are chatbots for community management — and other domains of digital engagement — really going to happen? I’d argue that since they already are in many other similar functions, such as Web site sales and support, that it’s almost certain, as a greater share of conversation shifts from human-to-human (H2H) to human-to-machine(H2M.) In fact, an employee from Cognizant even chimed into the above Twitter conversation that they are actually working on this. A smart chatbot to aid in community management will likely do volumes to improve the effectiveness of online communities, which are still getting short shrift in terms of investment in the professional skills needed to manage and facilitate them well.

In short, I believe smart chatbots will revolutionize digital/social engagement by adding a much needed automation and support of communication, knowledge management, and collaboration. There are also high value scenarios for chatbots connected to the e-commerce especially, an area that Facebook was careful to emphasize at F8. Chatbots will likely contribute to some digital noise as well, but filtering has proven effective in general for social environments in recent years. Overall, the emerging ensemble of conversational technologies is going to offer a compelling new access point to digital value for the average people in a very substantial way. At this point, I’d strongly recommend that most organizations add them to the new enterprise technologies to watch.) I will be adding smart chatbots to my upcoming 2016 enterprise tech watchlist on ZDNet as well.