How AI will change the modern workplace

Frustrated with your workplace communication processes? It might be time for an AI overhaul. Photo: The Office/ IMDb.

Technology is changing the way we live. Innovative products like smartwatches, virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana, and self-driving cars are raising the bar on expectations.

So why shouldn’t that change be reflected in the way we work?

Business Insider spoke to Dave Wright, the chief strategy officer at cloud computing business ServiceNow about what they’re doing to improve processes and productivity and the workplace, as well as trends we’re likely to see in the future.

But first if you’re not sure what ServiceNow does, here’s how Wright explains it.

“The example I always use is Uber,” he says.

“If you use Uber, you go in and you request what type of car you want, and what they give you — that you don’t need but you love — is the screen with all the little cars on it. What that’s doing is that’s telling you when that service is going to arrive; you’re seeing that information in real time.

“Imagine if you requested something off marketing, and you could see what stages it was going to go through; where it was, when you were going to get it. It becomes an immersive experience, but it gives you a better degree of satisfaction. You feel like you’ve got choice; you feel like you’ve got involvement and visibility. That’s what people are using now; people are taking the Service Now platform and applying that to all these different processes.”

In his role, Wright focuses on product direction, mergers and acquisitions strategy and strategic technical alliances, including with Microsoft and Cisco.

The company also deals with SMEs, who Wright says usually have a way of doing things, but are looking for the processes to define what they’re doing.

“We have different offerings for different levels of company, but, to be honest, any sized company can adopt it because we just charge per user, so there is no real barrier to entry for them.

“SMEs sometimes have a slightly different view on things… They’ll say, ‘Well, rather than us trying to invent another business processes, can we look at what you guys have got, and we can adopt our business process to that?’. Whereas, when you go to larger enterprise companies, they tend to already have a process, and they want to then try to map the process onto the product.”

Everyone’s now seeking solutions

This has seen more and more people, outside of IT departments, looking for IT solutions.

Dave Wright. Photo: Supplied.

“They’re all saying, ‘Why couldn’t we have a service catalog exactly the same that IT’s got, and then we can have a way to manage work that’s not just using email,'” says Wright.

“At the moment, you’ve got no way to prioritise things, you’ve got no way to organise things. When someone arrives at a company, and they want something to happen, they rely on tribal knowledge; they’ll say, ‘Hey, how do I get this done?’, and people typically say, ‘Oh, you email Steve’ or, ‘You email this group’. Then after a while Steve would get overloaded, so then has this brilliant idea of doing HR Acme.com, so like a blind inbox, which sucks. Now you’ve got no idea if anyone’s picked it up, you’ve got no idea when you’re going to get a result for it, and you get that stupid email back that says, ‘Thanks for your email. Don’t respond to this email.’

“A lot of people say, ‘Why couldn’t we take the IT processes that are in place, and simplify some of those, so we can have a work flow for how we manage human resources requests, so how we manage marketing requests?’. That whole enterprise service management element is where we see a lot of the work happening.”

Wright says this lack of organisation is having a profound impact on productivity.

In fact according to ServiceNow, people globally are spending roughly two days a week on non-productive activity. That’s 15 hours out of a 40-hour week that people have the opportunity to get back.

With no automated systems to deliver the outcomes required, organisations are losing time instead of focusing on meaningful tasks.

To combat these issues Wright says businesses are making a big push in demand for machine learning and smart technologies.

“We see a lot of people asking for virtual agent technology, the ability for people to be able to not have a group of people who field initial requests; have the requests come in and have it tailored down. We have people wanting to move away from very silo-ed request systems. People are saying now, ‘Why couldn’t we make it more like a Google interface?’ You don’t go to Google and say, ‘Right, I’m going to search on history. So I’ll go to the history part of Google and I’ll search there.’

“You need to get systems now, where you can just go in and say ‘This is the service I need’, and the system just points you to the right place to get there. Then you have people wanting to look at what can they do around predictive analytics; not just projected analytics.”

Here comes AI

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) will play a big part.

“We see that trend around AI; we see a lot of companies now, coming to us, like General Electric, where they’re saying ‘We’re dealing with IOT data, and we’ve built these huge data lakes to consume it, but now we want a process to actually be able to manage how we resolve this and how we stop it happening.'”

Wright says more than anything people will begin to demand this technology in the workplace as they use it more and more in everyday life.

“I think one of the things that will probably change over time is the way that people interface the technology. People joke and look around at things and think it’s novel; they’ll see a smartwatch or they’ll see things like the Amazon Echo system, they’ll see things like Voice Control. The reality is, they will become interconnected devices that become an easier way to do work.

Microsoft’s Cortana. Photo: YouTube/ calloftreyarch.

“The other thing you’ll see is, as people get more used to applications that they use outside of work, you’ll see a trend across enterprise applications, where people have to produce things of that quality. They have to be immersive, they have to be interactive. I think you’ll start to see things like dynamic user interfaces.”

For those not “in the know”, a user interface is something that a person interacts with when using an product or website. For example, the UI on a Windows computer would be your desktop.

“At the moment, people tend to log onto a system, and they’re presented with ‘This is the system you use’, but I think the system’s learnt how you interface them and how you use them; there’s a good opportunity for that UI to then become dynamic, and people to say ‘This is the way this particular person likes to work; this is the way this person likes to work’,” says Wright.

“We already see it now, where people come in, wanting different form factors, but you can analyse anything and say, ‘What do people use most on this, and why don’t we present that first?’.

“The self-reconfiguring system, the self-learning system, is going to be something we’re going to see more of in the next two to three years. Even now, when you see people going to car interfaces that are all gesture-based; I don’t know how long it will be before you see gesture-based interfaces coming through in the workplace.

“I think the way you interface systems is the thing that probably needs to change, because all we did is we digitised what a desktop looked like in 1980. We put a trashcan on it, and a file plan on it, an inbox and an outbox; there’s no reason why we should do it that way. There’s got to be a way to reinvent how we interface those systems.”

Keeping the human touch

At the end of the day however, Wright doesn’t see technology replacing humans.

“Some countries are looking for efficiency to actually remove people from a company, but what most people are looking for is a way to reclaim time so people can do things that are more interesting.

“I don’t think people will be completely removed from the equation, but I think people are going to demand more of their life back. You’ll get to a point where it’s unsustainable; there’s so much to do that you don’t have anything. Just dealing with the deluge of work becomes your life; that’s not sustainable. You can see the rise in that just over the last ten years.”

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