Tag Archives: collaboration

Personal Assistants

Continuing the series on Revolutionizing the Enterprise, where we left off at Sparking the Revolution, I would like to further emphasize immediate opportunities for productive improvements, which do not need to venture into much-hyped speculative technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence. Personal assistants fits the bill.

In the previous article, I identified communication and negotiation as skills where software agents can contribute superior capabilities to improve human productivity by offloading tedium and toil. Basic elements of this problem can be solved without applying advanced technology like AI. Machine learning can provide additional value by discerning a person’s preferences and priorities. For example, this person is always preferring to reschedule dentist appointments but never reschedules family events to accommodate work. Automating the learning of rules enables the prioritization of activities to be automated, further offloading cognitive load.

In my own work, I wish I had a personal assistant, who could shadow my every move. I want it to record my activities so I can replay them later. I want these activities to be in the most concise and compact form, not only as audio and video. For example, as I execute commands in a bash shell, I want to record the command line arguments, the inputs, and the outputs, so this textual information can be copied to technical documentation. As I point and click through a graphical user interface, I want these events to be described as instructions (e.g., input “John Doe” in the field labeled “Name” and click on the “Submit” button).

With a history of my work in this form, this information will be useful for a number of purposes.

  • Someone who pioneers a procedure will eventually need to document it for knowledge transfer. Operating procedures teach others how to accomplish the same tasks by observing how it was done.
  • Pair programming is often inconvenient due to team members being located remote from each other and separated by time zones. An activity log can enable two remote workers to collaborate more effectively.
  • Context switching between tasks is expensive in terms of organizing one’s thoughts. Remembering what a person was doing, so that they can resume later would save time and improve effectiveness.

The above would be a good starting point for a personal assistant without applying any form of AI or analytics. Then, imagine what might be possible as future enhancements. Procedures can be optimized. Bad habits can be replaced by better ones. Techniques used by more effective workers can be taught to others. Highly repeatable tasks can be automated to remove that burden from humans.

I truly believe the places to begin innovating to revolutionize the enterprise are the mundane and ordinary, which machines have the patience, discipline, and endurance to perform better than humans. More ambitious technological capabilities are good value-adds, but we should start with the basics to establish personal assistants in the enterprise as participants in ordinary work, not as esoteric tools in obscure niches.

[Image credit – Robotics and the Personal Assistant of the Future]

Sparking the Revolution

In my previous article, Revolutionizing the Enterprise, I provided an outlook for how emerging technologies may help to transform how we do work. Now, let’s explore how we might provide the spark that starts the fire to burn down the old and welcome the new. The world does not change in a radical way without a progression of steps that pave a path for getting from here to there. What might the first step be to spark the revolution? How do we introduce robots and AIs as personal assistants into the regular work lives of employees?

We need only look to our daily struggles to identify where every person would see the value of machine intelligence. Organizing a meeting among several participants can be challenging. You need to find a convenient time when every participant is available. You need to find a suitable venue that can accommodate everyone. If folks need to travel, the complexity rises enormously, because each traveler’s attendance is then dependent upon successfully booking travel arrangements. The risk of a single unsatisfied requirement causing the meeting to be non-viable rises with each participant and their special needs. If the meeting needs to be moved to accommodate certain participants, this would then trigger a storm of activity to renegotiate, and a flurry of activity to explore how calendars can be readjusted with a cascade of renegotiations of other appointments, each having its own priority and constraints.

This kind of negotiation among a network of people is virtually impossible to accomplish by humans among each other, because of the latency for human communications. However, if every human could be represented by an agent, who could negotiate on their behalf, this kind of activity could become painless. Imagine how many hours of phone tag, email, and travel booking could be saved. Even if an agent were not entrusted to finalize decisions on travel booking, all of the negotiation and arrangements could be prepared and presented for final approval by the human; or even involve the human at key decision points by presenting a short list of options to guide the way forward for the agent.

I believe, ordinary mundane problems such as this one, which every person has experienced, will serve as an opportunity to introduce machine intelligence to work alongside us. The off-loading of such unproductive and non-creative toil to an automated personal assistant would be a welcome change that would be seen as another useful tool, rather than a radical development. And that’s how the revolutionary should begin.

Revolutionizing the Enterprise

It has been over five years since I wrote an article titled Enterprise Collaboration, in which I identified the need for innovations to transform how people do their work. Since then, we have seen no significant advances. Enterprise applications continue to move very slowly to the cloud, driven primarily by cost efficiencies with little noticeable functional improvement except at the margins (big data analytics, social, search, mobile, user experience).

Where can we go from here?

I still firmly believe that a global work force needs to be decoupled in space and time. Mobility and cloud services will continue to provide an improving platform to enable work to be performed at any time from wherever people want. We should enable people to do their work as effectively from the office as from home, in their vehicles, during air travel, at the coffee shop, or anywhere else they happen to be. Advances in computing power, miniaturization, virtual reality, alternative display and input technologies (e.g., electronic skin, heads up displays, voice recognition, brain computer interfaces, etc.), and networking will continue to provide an improving platform for inventing better ways of doing work and play. This path does not need too much imagination to foresee.

Recently, we have seen an up-tick in applying artificial intelligence. Every major company seems to be embracing AI in some form. Image recognition and natural language are areas that have been researched for decades, and they are now being employed more ubiquitously in every day applications. These technologies lower the barrier between the virtual world and the real world, where humans want to interact with machine intelligence on their own terms.

However, I believe an area where AI will provide revolutionary benefits is in decision support and autonomous decision-making. So much of what people do at work is tedium that they wish could be automated. Some forms of tedium are drudgery, such as reporting status and time to management, organizing and scheduling meetings among team members, planning work and tracking progress, and keeping people informed. These tasks are routine and time-consuming, not creative and value-producing. Machines can interact among themselves to negotiate on behalf of humans for the most mundane tasks that people don’t really care too much to be involved in. Machines can slog through an Internet full of information to gather, prune, and organize the most relevant set of facts that drive decisions. Machines can carry out tasks on their own time, freeing up humans to work on more important or interesting things.

Personal assistants as computing applications are a new phenomenon. Everyone has heard of Amazon Echo and Google Assistant by now. I can imagine advances in this capability expanding into all areas of work and personal life to help off-load tedium. As AI becomes more capable, we should see them taking over mundane tasks, like research (e.g., comparing products to offer recommendations toward a purchasing decision, comparing providers toward recommending a selection), planning, coordinating, note taking, recalling relevant information from memory, distilling large volumes of information into a concise summary, etc. Eventually, AI will even become capable enough to take over mundane decision-making tasks that a person no longer cares to make (e.g., routinely replenish supplies of consumables from the lowest priced supplier, repetitive tasks).

The other phenomenon that will revolutionize the work place even more than in the past is robotics. Robots have already revolutionized manufacturing for decades by replacing repetitive error-prone labor-intensive tasks with perfectly reproducible error-free automation. We are seeing politics influence businesses to apply robots, where human labor sufficed in the past, purely because of the increasing cost of labor. Minimum wage legislation (bans on jobs that pay less than some mandated floor in wages) that raises labor costs above the value produced will force businesses to rethink how to operate profitably. Beyond entry-level jobs, such as fast food service, self-driving cars and trucks are already in trials for ride-sharing and long haul cargo transport. As robots become more dexterous, mobile, compact, and intelligent, we will see them become personal assistants to perform physical tasks as much as we see them in software form perform computing tasks. We should anticipate that robots will serve in a broad spectrum of capacities from low-skilled drudgery to highly-skilled artisans and professions.

The future enterprise will involve a work force where humans, AIs, and robots collaborate closely. Humans have a comparative advantage in performing creative and path-finding tasks with ill-defined goals, many unknowns, and little experience to draw upon. Robots and AIs have a comparative advantage in performing repetitive, well-defined, and tedious tasks. Together, they will transform the enterprise in ways that we have never seen before.

Enterprise Tablet Computing

I would like to explore how tablet computing could improve how work is done within enterprises.

In my previous article, Enterprise Collaboration, I identified the need for workers to collaborate with greater decoupling in space and time. Today’s audio and Web conferencing technology combined with email, instant messaging, blogging, Wikis, and sharing documents in the cloud are not providing a game changing improvement in productivity. Something is missing to enable a geographically dispersed, mobile work force to revolutionize the way that work is done.

A technology that coincides with the advance of always-on mobility, compact form factor, touch screen, and cloud computing is the tablet computer.

What is one thing you can do with a tablet that you cannot do with a laptop?

You can use your fingers to write, draw, and gesture.

Is there some kind of application that would benefit from this advantage in the enterprise?

When technical staff needs to interact to collectively explore ideas, such as the meetings that facilitate analysis and design, we frequently find that audio and Web conferencing provide an inadequate degree of real-time interactivity. These tools facilitate a single presenter and an audience that is not heavily engaged. If a group of peers is meeting to facilitate contributions from every participant, these tools are entirely unhelpful. This degree of interactivity will usually require everyone to meet in person, and the tools for the job are a laptop, a projector, a whiteboard, dry erase pens, and an eraser. The ability to write, draw, and annotate as a group makes all the difference.

Here is where the tablet can fill a need, and do so in a superior fashion. The content on a whiteboard is not in digital form. A photograph of the content is still not very useful, beyond distributing copies. The content needs to be treated as a mix of documents, raster images, structured diagrams (or models), textual annotations, free form drawings, and possibly even video and audio media.

Imagine if each meeting participant used a tablet that is capable of remotely collaborating via an application that served as a whiteboard for presentation, collective editing, and interactivity using any digital content. Cameras and headsets can facilitate video and audio conferencing simultaneously with whiteboard interactions. Text chat can allow covert or overt conversations to happen without being limited by a shared audio channel. Perhaps advanced features like speech-to-text translation could even be incorporated to maintain a complete transcript of all conversations and interactivity in all simultaneous modes of communication.

If such an application existed today, it would immediately eliminate a great deal of costly travel expenses. It would give back many hours of wasted travel time to employees. It would even enable them to work more effectively from home, reducing the need to travel to the office every day. In fact, anyone could work equally effectively from anywhere, at any time of day. It would be liberating for the individual. It would also make workers in remote offices collaborate much more effectively on a daily basis. The enterprise would immediately become a great deal more social, because their interactions would be more engaging and productive.

Enterprise Collaboration – how we work

Over the past few years we have seen Web 2.0 technologies being established in our personal and professional lives. Social networking tools are being used to keep us connected with friends, family, and colleagues across space and time. In business, technology has ignited a new era in collaboration and social interaction to bring customers closer to those who market, sell, and support their products and services. But we have still not seen this bring about a new era in collaboration among workers within the enterprise.

In January 2011, Tomi Ahonen wrote the Fortune 500 CEO Guide to Mobile, which brought to my attention the on-going technology revolution that we are currently experiencing—the steady move to mobile. It was not just the speed and scale of adoption that is impressive (and it is extremely impressive). It is the way that mobile is permeating every aspect of our personal and professional lives. It is the way that it is transforming almost everything that we do, and the tools that we use to do them.

However, I still believe that we are only seeing this transformation in its infancy. It has started with the adoption of platform technologies (mobile, Internet, Web 2.0), but we have yet to see a cultural transformation to accompany the technological revolution at the scale we are seeing. We have yet to see Enterprise 2.0 yield gains in productivity at work that are comparable to the improvements in our interpersonal relationships on Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. Blogs, Wikis, Instant Messaging, and the gradual enabling of tools to become more social are adding incremental value to our business processes, but they are not fundamentally changing the way we do business.

We still drive to the same office and largely interact with our colleagues face-to-face or by audio conference and with web conferencing (and accompanying presentation tools) as a visual aid. The manner in which we facilitate work between remote participants remains awkward and inconvenient. Awkward and inconvenient in that audio and video conferencing provide a very poor user experience in the following ways.

  • Only a single person is able to speak at once. Interruptions are inevitable. Often the individuals who speak the most do not yield sufficient time for others to contribute their ideas and opinions. It is sometimes not clear whether the most valuable insights have actually been discussed, because the person moderating the discussion has not structured it to give time to key participants at key points in the conversation. Time is allocated according to the aggressiveness (and courtesy) of the speakers, usually in proportion to rank, as opposed to the merit of their content.
  • Forcing conversations to happen in real time limits the forum due to participant availability (i.e., conflicting schedules, time zone differences), attention span (i.e., often our thoughts are occupied by other priorities), and preparedness (i.e., expecting participants to have reviewed material beforehand in preparation to reach consensus). Some people do not perform well in this setting; they perform better when given time to collect their thoughts. Some people respond better in writing.
  • Although audio and video can be recorded for later playback, it is not a digital transcript whose content can be indexed and searched. A scribe may take notes and publish minutes, but this is labor intensive, and the result is not a full-faith representation of the conversations.
  • Often a key participant is not included in a meeting, because the organizer was not aware of that person’s capabilities until later.

For the preferred mode of collaboration in the enterprise to evolve from real time conferencing to a format that overcomes the above deficiencies, we need a culture that relies less on real time collaboration and more on online tools that bring people together to work more closely, while allowing them to be more decoupled in space and time.

Clearly we need better tools to fulfill this need. We have seen tools like Google Wave appear and quickly disappear. Google Wave failed to integrate with enough supporting tools to enable collaborative editing, peer review, and post-processing (interchange) of a broad range of content (documents, images, audio, video, presentations, conferences, models, charts). It failed to integrate with enough supporting applications to participate in real world business processes. But worst of all, it failed to provide a compelling paradigm or inspiration for a cultural shift to collaborate more effectively in real time and otherwise.

Where do we go from here?

Recognize that workers need to collaborate with greater decoupling in space and time. Mobile computing with always-on smart phones and tablets is a fundamental enabler for such decoupling. Enterprise applications that run in the cloud are another element that enables the work force to collaborate using these devices. What we are missing is the right mix of applications and integration into business processes that support the new ways of doing work.

As the corporate office, desk, desktop computer, and telephone become extinct, we must anticipate how a mobile always-on work force will need to work. We must develop applications to facilitate this new work paradigm where activities are often time-shifted; and real-time collaborations are between remote workers, who may be anywhere (e.g., at home on the couch, at the coffee shop, in the airport, in-flight on an airplane, driving an automobile). We will know that the revolution has arrived, when the culture in the enterprise considers it more natural to do work using mobile devices from anywhere and at all hours rather than at the office during office hours.

collaboration – a business idea

business idea for enterprise collaboration

(Continued from 2002-07-08.) One of the biggest impediments to productivity is the lack of tools to facilitate collaboration. This was not as noticeable, when workers tended to be collocated with those they needed to collaborate. Physical collocation makes less sense today, when globalization requires companies to be distributed throughout the world.

Expertise is becoming so specialized that it is impossible to develop a broad range of skills in house and locally, so this creates a need to outsource and recruit teleworkers. Email, telephony, instant messaging, and intranet Web sites only go so far to facilitate communication with these remote sites. These technologies need to be integrated into business processes to facilitate wide scale real-time collaboration.

In a software development organization, there are very specific requirements that are unmet by today’s information technology. Software development tools tend to focus either on the relationship between individuals and code artifacts (e.g., integrated development environment) or the relationship between the code artifacts and the quality assurance processes for the software product (e.g., software configuration management). Over the past decade there has been a greater focus on analysis and design tools (e.g., UML modeling). However, modeling is a very small part of analysis and design. The majority of analysis involves the capture of requirements and use cases in the form of natural language (e.g., English) descriptions. This is a very iterative and interactive process among experts and analysts, and the information flows into design. Design is a very creative process among analysts, architects, and programmers in various areas of expertise (e.g., user interface, application server, database). The collaboration tools support for analysis and design are wholly inadequate today.

The software development community needs a Web based collaboration system for analysis and design. In the analysis space, Rational Requisite Web almost completely misses the mark for a requirements database. In the design space, there is nothing to facilitate the whiteboard-style interactions that are necessary during the creative process. Such interactions work toward evaluating design options and formally capturing the final design decisions. UML modeling is merely a visualization technique. UML diagrams are not in a format that is appropriate for communication between all stakeholders. Ultimately documents must be produced for the software architecture and the design of each subsystem. Collaboration tools are required for producing these artifacts as a team.

I have looked at using a Wiki to facilitate collaborative content creation. This is not a bad mechanism for authoring, reviewing, and revising content. However, it is wholly inadequate for taking that content and producing documents for publishing. Moreover, a Wiki alone is insufficient for handling all the various kinds of content that is needed for analysis and design (e.g., models, diagrams, code, user interface prototypes), and for managing the workflow.

I believe that this is a tremendous business opportunity. There is clearly a need for this kind of collaboration tool for software development. One can imagine this need extending into other engineering activities, and perhaps even into other disciplines (e.g., sales and marketing) within the enterprise. This is likely a $100M idea with a market window that is likely to remain open for quite some time. If I had the guts, I would probably pursue this one as my baby. I’ve got the perfect skillset and experience to make this happen.

road to utopia

into the fast lane

In the long term, I still firmly believe that it is modestly priced, high volume consumer services like telephony, television, video on demand, music, gaming, and e-commerce that will be Utopia for Communications Service Providers (CSPs). There are many obstacles that must be overcome first: political reforms (regulation, laws, licenses, spectrum), radical changes to content provider business models, network infrastructure investments (fiber, packet radio, and IPv6), cost reductions to high end gear (optical CPE routers, IP enabled home theaters), and a critical mass of adopters. There are too many factors to accelerate artificially; it must happen as a natural progression.

Consumers are notoriously frugal. They generally purchase the minimum to satisfy their needs. Anything beyond what is good enough becomes a luxury. To succeed in this market, it is crucial to provide services perceived to be essential rather than merely luxurious. Without that economy of scale, a provider cannot recuperate the cost of building out the infrastructure to neighborhoods.

In the meantime, there are high value services that can address immediate needs. Businesses are always in search of productivity gains and improving efficiencies.

  1. Collaboration – With enterprises extending their global reach, workers in remote offices will need to collaborate more effectively. Video-conferencing, remote white boarding, groupware, and other real-time collaborative work tools will significantly reduce the need for in-person meetings. Expensive, time-consuming travel will become largely unnecessary.
  2. Teleworking – Urban traffic congestion, costly office facilities, and a diversely distributed global workforce are all forces that will encourage greater use of telework. Effective online collaboration and improved broadband access will enable workers, who want the convenience of working from home, the ability to do so without any compromise in productivity.
  3. Business Integration – This is already underway. Supply chain management and other forms of business-to-business (B2B) integration are improving the ability to outsource. Concentrating on core competencies implies contracting out non-core work to business partners, who do consider that work to be their core competency.

Enterprises are willing to invest in incremental improvements to business efficiencies, because there are measurable returns. The capital markets exert great pressure for such improvements to be demonstrated each and every fiscal quarter. This market can be penetrated without having to incur sizable short-term losses, unlike the pricing that is necessary to penetrate the consumer market. Whereas information technology is often considered a luxury to consumers, it is clearly essential to many businesses.

The productivity gains at work become catalysts for workers desiring similar lifestyle improvements at home. Online collaboration with remote coworkers leads to online collaboration with family and friends. Telework leads to home workers applying the technology already installed towards personal entertainment. General availability of the technology tends to stimulate new opportunities as users discover new ways to apply it. It is this manner of cultivating markets that will lead us to the end goal.