In-Depth

Chatbots at Work: Office 365's Latest Collaboration Effort

Will Microsoft Teams ride on the coattails of Office 365, or will compatibility among business-grade intelligent bots leave room for Slack, HipChat, Google Hangouts and even Facebook Messenger, among others?

Early chatbots have earned a rep for frivolity by tackling "problems" like ordering Domino's via Facebook Messenger. Chatbots are tech's new black, and now everybody wants one: It's not just Domino's. Buy Pizza Hut by bot. Don't want pizza? Burger King's bot will take your order. Have a hunger of a different kind? Romance bot Bubby "sets you up on dates with people in [its] private, curated community of vetted, eligible members."

The superficiality of such chatbots notwithstanding, a new class of bots is quickly taking on a life of its own in many workplaces, and employees aren't just using them to order lunch or to find romance. Millions of technically inclined professionals have gravitated to Slack, HipChat and several others over the past two years, creating a grassroots movement to adopt chatbots for everyday collaboration. Chatbots now have the potential to become even more commonplace in the workplace now that they are available at no extra cost to the 100 million customers that have Office 365 commercial subscriptions.

While many business and IT managers are gauging the value of chatbots as a tool for collaboration, Microsoft shares the view with its rivals that their use is going to accelerate. "We feel strongly and the data bears out that when a user is on Teams, they are spending a ton of time in that product on a day-to-day basis," says Larry Jin, senior program manager for the Microsoft Teams developer platform. Despite the head start by Slack, whose Slackbots are in use by 5 million workers, Microsoft officials don't see its lead and popularity as a barrier and insist that Microsoft Teams integration with Office 365, with a conduit to Outlook, Skype for Business and Yammer, gives it a huge leg up for the long haul.

Building a Chatbot Ecosystem
As it looks to accelerate the use of Microsoft Teams, Redmond is also turning to a formula that always has served it well: its ecosystem of partners. The company counts about 30 partners who offer pure chatbots that function as interactive virtual agents. Among the better-known but primarily Web-centric companies that offer chatbots for Microsoft Teams are GitHub, Hootsuite Media Inc., Kayak, Nimble and Zendesk. Subcurrent Inc. (with its Polly bot), Trello Inc. and Zoom.ai Inc. are some of the newer startups whose chatbots help workgroups use artificial intelligence (AI) to gather information and automate everyday business tasks. Despite the relatively small number of chatbots, the Microsoft Teams ecosystem is much broader with support for what it calls Connectors, which provide read-only broadcasts from hundreds of Web-based services such as Twitter, Mailchimp, Google Analytics, Trello and Salesforce.com, and alerts to changes in GitHub, Jira or an RSS feed. Another form of integration in Microsoft Teams, called Tabs, allows users to access Power BI charts, SharePoint document libraries, YouTube videos and Zendesk help desk tickets, among others. Users can access Tabs within the context of a team or from Channels, which are topics or categories set up in the Microsoft Teams interface.

The belief that intelligent virtual assistants are going to subsume society and the workplace has created a goldrush among entrepreneurs looking to deliver the killer chatbot. "The usage of bots in the enterprise is growing exponentially," said Rob May, CEO of chatbot startup Talla Inc., in a recent blog post announcing an $8.3 million Series A round of financing from Glasswing Ventures with investors PJC, Pillar and Launch Capital participating in the investment. Talla's largest pilot as of mid-June was a Fortune 50 company that has 90,000 employees who use Microsoft Teams. "We've seen many Fortune Global 2000 companies with open budgets and projects for bots at work," May noted. "While the consumer bot experiences may be dragging down the perception of bots, they are getting real traction in the enterprise."

Asking the Right Questions
Chatbots of the future will have a whole set of implications around how to interact with them. Knowing the right questions is the hard part: How will they -- and the roles they play -- change? Will Microsoft Teams -- driven by its considerable Office 365 user base -- make headway in a Slack-driven world? How will chatbots affect the way real people work or how human teams collaborate? Can bots process sensitive data and keep your information safe? Ask the right questions, and eventually we'll craft the future. "A lot of [chatbots'] problems are not solved yet but we're working on solutions," May said during the Enterprise Bot Customer Conference, a client/­vendor confab held earlier this summer in New York. Questions are also Talla's forte: In addition to a recently launched IT Service Management (ITSM) chatbot, the company's HR bot answers questions that drive human resources staffers crazy, such as: "How much vacation time do I have left? When does my insurance kick in?"

The future of chatbot evolution -- whether the bots are for HR, creating help desk tickets or something else -- depends more on the questions we ask than on how we answer. "The things [users] ask about and talk about drive [developers] to solve those problems," May said. "In other words, if we want the right answers, we must first ask the right questions." That's why chatbots were created, after all: to solve problems. For Talla, that first problem was HR execs so overloaded by menial tasks they couldn't do the more essential parts of their job.

The Slack Factor
As chatbots get serious, an ecosystem of those that are business-focused is emerging. And it's not just Microsoft that's building an ecosystem of chatbot providers. Slack has already built a large directory of ISVs that have built Slackbots. And not all are hitching their wagons to Microsoft Teams right away. For example, Birdly Inc., a startup launched in May, offers a chatbot called Plato that's integrated with Slack and matches employees with potential mentors. Slack is popular among technical users and engineers, making it a good fit for Plato.

The initial concept wasn't about creating a chatbot, according to Jean-Baptiste Coger, Plato's co-founder and chief product officer. "We didn't have to be a bot," Coger said. But the decision to be one anyway signals a shift in chatbots' move from optional add-ons to critical members in an expanding ecosystem. Plato isn't a Slackbot because it's cool or trendy. It's a Slackbot because the potential of messaging apps, according to Coger, is "extremely powerful when you're working very lean and growing your product." Not only are clients more likely to provide feedback through a bot, but that feedback comes in real time. Through messaging, Plato has a direct pipeline to actual users, as opposed to just a sales contact. Being a chatbot was also easier for users: The mentors and mentees Plato matches "spend their day on Slack so that's where we should be," Coger said.

"When you have a bot product, your product becomes your support and your customer success tool," he added. "We've gathered a lot of feedback -- ideas, bugs, things like that -- directly from our users through our product."

Despite the 5 million people who reportedly use Slack every day, outside tech circles, most people still don't use it or other chatbots. "In North America, there's no one dominant chat platform," says Zoom.ai Founder Roy Pereira. Zoom.ai, a personal assistant chatbot, integrates into eight different platforms including Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, IBM Watson Workplace, Google Hangouts, Cisco Spark GroupMe, Telegram and Facebook Messenger. "To me, it doesn't really matter what the platform is," says Forrester Research Inc. Chief Business Technology Officer Steve Peltzman. "It's more about the utility of the thing. Different departments will figure different things out."

The messaging app of choice and extent of usage varies by industry. While some companies use it to collaborate with customers, others use it on more of an ad hoc basis internally such as Flatiron Health, a company that sells organized analytics platforms to cancer facilities, which uses Slack for internal collaboration but hasn't found a case to use it externally. "Our customers don't use Slack," says Danny Lipsitz, Flatiron Health's sales operations manager. "We're talking about oncology clinics and biopharma companies."

Despite Slack's popularity among technical and engineering professionals, it can be a burdensome additional tool to use on top of all the numerous other data streams workers now interact with, according to Microsoft Partner-Architect/Strategist Bill Bliss. "A lot of companies [say], 'OK, this is all great, but I can't count on my finance team or the HR team to just know how to do all this stuff,'" Bliss said during a presentation at the Enterprise Bot Customer conference.

The software buyer at your average health clinic and your company bookkeeper might not be on Slack, but they've definitely used Outlook. Bliss, a Microsoft veteran, is a founding member of the company's Microsoft Teams effort, but he was also part of Outlook's original project team when it was first released in the early 1990s. He compares integrating the two to watching your child come of age, evidenced by the fact that integration with Microsoft Teams is provided through what Redmond calls Outlook Actionable Messages that can be handled as messages delivered in Outlook, where the chatbot thread appears directly in the e-mail client, or via Office 365 Connectors.

Too Old to Use Chatbots?
It's no secret those drawn to Slack are stereotypically workers under the age of 35. However, those employees are expected to account for a majority of the workplace in the next several years, which is a key reason everyone is jumping on the chatbot bandwagon. Zoom.ai's Pereira jokes, "We also have a Web interface for older workers who don't want do chat."

Call them "older" if you like, but the reality is that there are still many, many employees in the workforce who do not use or do not like Slack. And whether they love Microsoft products or not, decades of use mean those workers are definitely more than comfortable using them.

Going where all these other people are isn't just the fastest way to mainstream bots. It's the best chance for Microsoft Teams to chip into the Slack stranglehold on the market. Microsoft Teams isn't simply contributing to the growing chatbot ecosystem; it's building an environment for that ecosystem to thrive from. Yes, Slack is where the techies are, but it's still an app that has to be separately opened and separately checked. "Microsoft Teams is a collaboration chat-centric platform that was designed to be integrated from the ground up with Office," Bliss said.

Microsoft Teams in Action
During his presentation, Bliss tabbed through multiple Office components and related products with ease, showing how Polly, a chatbot that conducts polls, integrates throughout the Office suite. Bliss toggled from Word to Outlook to Skype so smoothly, you'd think each program was a PowerPoint slide. Choose the chatbot from the Microsoft Teams version of an app store here. Access Microsoft Teams while working in Outlook. Link to Polly's poll results from Word there. There's no separate channel, no Polly icon on the taskbar. Inside Microsoft Teams, the chatbot doesn't feel like an add-on. It simply belongs and you're a little surprised it wasn't always there. "Any application that you build that you want to integrate with Teams gets exposed as a set of native features," Bliss explained.

As for where this is heading, Bliss said, "You don't think about extending the camera in your mobile phone to do pictures in Facebook, right? There's a Facebook app. It happens to use the camera." Whatever functionality you need -- regardless of the parts that combine to create it -- are together in a single app. "That same concept is what we're going after."

In other words, the Office 365 integration and its ecosystem is the true advantage of Microsoft Teams. For many users -- like it or not -- Slack is simply one more thing to have to check, Bliss argued. Or as he more gently put it, "We think the idea of having to switch over to another app five or 10 or 20 or 50 times a day is something that really should just have to go away."

Early Days for Chatbots
While much of the future of bots depends on people, that doesn't mean Microsoft, Talla, Plato, and others won't keep addressing technical questions and attempting to make bots more appealing to use by those not sold on the technology. There are still many issues to address.

"I think it's still very early days in bots," Bliss said. "There's no real standard way for bots to be able to talk to one another; there's not necessarily a standard way for bots to be able to have a sidebar conversation in furtherance of creating a high-level task. Getting those interactions down is actually part of the journey that we're all on right now."

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