Collaboration Automation August 2012
A growing body of evidence suggests that the next wave of collaboration software will include tools to automate routine work tasks. Exactly which vendors will provide automation software and where this software will sit in the enterprise software stack are unclear. Unified-communications systems have access to a lot of communications and collaboration data and could leverage these data for automation. Workflow-management software already automates some business processes and could increase its automation role in the future. Some analysts argue that the emerging field of enterprise social analytics could evolve to include automation. Two other candidates for hosting new automation software are traditional business-intelligence systems and consumer smartphone services. Business-intelligence systems have analyzed corporate data and produced reports and dashboards for many years, and now some vendors are moving their products toward workplace automation. On smartphones, personal assistants and intelligent-search software (notably Apple's Siri and Google Now) are evolving, and as the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend continues, such software may eventually find a role in workplace automation.
Business Intelligence and Automation
Business-intelligence software has been around for many years, but it is facing changes as the strategic interest in big data grows. For example, McKinsey & Company recently surveyed "C-level executives" about digital business and found that 25% of respondents listed "big data and analytics" as a top-three corporate priority (and more than 50% of respondents listed it as a top-ten priority). Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media argues that traditional business intelligence involves a person generating reports from data, studying the reports, and making a decision about something, whereas new automated approaches see software studying data to refine an algorithm that makes the decision.
Some business-intelligence vendors are making changes. In September 2011, business-intelligence vendor Ingres rebranded itself as Actian and began offering tools that enable customers to create simple, customizable automation applications based on insights from their business-intelligence systems. Developers can use Actian's Cloud Action Platform to build consumer-style apps that probe different internal and external data sets. Developers can define events and thresholds to trigger actions and create code to carry out an action. For example, an Action App could watch top prospects in a Salesforce.com application, track news reports and stock market updates, and alert the account manager when news about a prospect's profitability, results, or executive team arrives. Price optimization is another example. Using a data feed of competitors' prices, an app could automatically match prices within defined limits.
Such app examples are simple and not particularly new (ThinkAnalytics and other vendors also provide software that can turn business-intelligence insights into simple actions, and many online retailers rely on automated pricing algorithms). But Actian's basic idea—an app platform that can probe a large number of data sets and take actions in response to defined triggers—is a clear stepping-stone toward greater automation of routine work tasks. In the future, more advanced versions of such apps could:
- Create the best available project team for a new assignment on the basis of a project description, calendars, and past activities of employees (ideally, the software would look at activity-generated data such as completed projects and social connections rather than manually entered online profiles that are likely to be unreliable or out of date)
- Identify knowledge gaps across a division on the basis of the number of questions about a topic employees post on a social software service and then automatically locate and assign training or support material to the division
- Adjust the time limit for a task on the basis of data that track completed tasks, incomplete tasks, and requests for help and then automatically reassign the task when the new time limit is reached
- Configure meeting rooms automatically on the basis of the needs of workers (for example, turn on conferencing software by default when people enter rooms if video analysis of archived meetings showed that the majority of meetings began with people locating and setting up conferencing software).
Personal Devices and Automation
Increasingly, employees are bringing their own devices (smartphones and, to a lesser extent, tablets) into the workplace and using them to perform a mix of work and personal functions. Corporations are adjusting to the BYOD era. For example, Avaya recently updated its unified-communications software to allow workers to use their own tablets and smartphones with the corporate software.
The impact of smartphone-based personal-assistant and intelligent-search software such as Apple's Siri and Google Now (part of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean) is embryonic in the workplace, but the impact of such software will grow and bring about new forms of automation. Already, these voice-activated services include reasonably sophisticated automation software. One use case for Google Now is the software's automatically reminding someone that he or she needs to leave work to get to an appointment with the hairdresser in time. To issue this reminder, the software needs to compare the current time and user's location with a calendar appointment and check the length of the trip. The software then needs to combine this information into a useful reminder. Similar software (if it has access to the right corporate systems) could schedule a meeting between a salesperson and his or her manager after discovering they both have some free time on their calendars and are in the same location. On its website, Apple provides work-related use cases for Siri, including asking the software to set up a work meeting, asking it to send a work email, or asking it to tell a coworker about a travel delay.
Siri and Google Now are still experimental services and are likely to evolve considerably during the next few years—especially now that competition exists. In three years, smartphone-based assistants and intelligent search may be commonplace in low-level workplace automation. For example, such services could book travel, schedule meetings, add items to task lists, and create briefing material about new topics. Enterprises have some way to go in figuring out how to integrate smartphone-based assistants and intelligent search in the workplace (IBM recently banned Siri because of security concerns), but the progress of consumer-owned devices as legitimate workplace tools (Avaya's recent updating of its unified-communications software for BYOD is just one example) suggests that eventual acceptance and integration of personal assistants and intelligent search into the workplace is likely.
Harmonizing Corporate and Consumer Automation Software
The automation of routine work is more likely to result from the effect of the combination of various automation systems (that in some cases will be able to negotiate with one another) than from the arrival of a single automation product. Workflow-management software will automate standard and repetitive processes. In the medium term, different analytics systems will automate and optimize tasks on the basis of business-intelligence databases, social software, and unified-communications data. In the long term, these analytics systems may combine. And although companies may provide various tools to help automate tasks for the individual worker (for example, automatically finding documents relevant to a current task), many individuals will likely utilize increasingly sophisticated software on their own devices to help them with day-to-day tasks. Eventually, corporations and government departments will likely feel the need to open up corporate systems to such services, just as they have allowed employee-owned devices to access corporate email and other workplace systems. In the future, consumer automation software and workplace automation software will need to work together. A natural split is consumer assistants that help the individual and corporate systems that help project teams, divisions, and entire companies.