In-Depth

Modern Collaboration with Chatbots

Chatbots are the new apps that have fueled the growth of Slack and are now the key focus in expanding Microsoft Teams and Office 365.

Earlier this year at Microsoft's annual developer conference, Build, the company focused extensively on the Microsoft Graph and how it's the cornerstone of the company's goal to bring intelligence to software and hardware, including Edge and Internet of Things (IoT)-capable and embedded devices. Company officials emphasized how the graph will come to life through intelligent virtual assistants, aka chatbots. If that sounds futuristic, it is, but chatbots are already available with the new Microsoft Teams, designated by the company as a critical component of its modern collaboration platform.

Organizations can use chatbots to personalize their Microsoft Teams experiences by adding more intelligence to their electronic conversations. They're a virtual personal assistant that finds information and content, answers natural language questions, automatically runs surveys, provides quick status updates on open projects and tasks, kicks off workflows, and much more. In many ways, chatbots are the new apps -- and they may be the future of software, which is why many venture capital and private equity investors are putting money into a mounting number of startups.

The concept of chatbots has existed for some time, but with the advent of Slack and other chat platforms, the utility of using bots to automate certain user interactions in otherwise complex Web-based systems has risen in popularity. Web chat software such as Intercom, Tawk.to, and others have made chat essential for sales, marketing, and support. But what has really driven the movement toward chatbots has been the ubiquity of text messaging and smartphones.

"The availability of language understanding software such as Microsoft's LUIS has made it easier than ever for software to understand humans and their messages," according to Mike Watson, a former Microsoft technologist who is now the founder of SeriousLabz, where he focuses almost entirely on bot development for customers in the United Kingdom. "Bots are just easy to build. Anybody can build a half-decent bot and not worry about all the problems typical of traditional software. But more important, bots are easy for end users. Even the biggest technology luddite can talk to a bot, and as long as the commands for that bot are simple to understand and well-surfaced, that person will get the information that they need."

Within Microsoft Teams, organizations can use different Connectors, bots, and other third-party services quickly and easily. What was once the domain of IT pros and developers has been moved into the information worker realm, allowing non-technical employees to discover, configure and use power­ful tools within minutes.

Bots Driving Microsoft Teams Adoption
While the launch of Microsoft Teams was heralded as Redmond's answer to Slack, it may soon eclipse the popular team conversation tool due to its emphasis on Office 365 integration. When launching Microsoft Teams, users also have access to leading productivity solutions such as Outlook, OneNote, OneDrive for Business, SharePoint and Skype for Business. These integrations provide Microsoft Teams with common functionality right through the software's UX, providing a single interface for almost all of an organization's business activities. The rise of chatbots will lead Microsoft Teams adoption to expand rapidly.

Bots appear within the Microsoft Teams environment, allowing employees to interact through the chat interface within a Channel, or in a private chat. Users are able to @mention the bot and ask questions, discover content and information, and get quick insights. Furthermore, bots that are found to be useful in one Channel can be shared across other Channels, allowing users to quickly replicate high-value experiences across all of their Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft Teams went live with two primary bots, providing great examples of what's possible through this medium:
  • Who-Bot is a quick reference tool for engaging with team members. Users can enter real-language requests, such as: "Who on my team has experience with manufacturing technology?" And the Who-Bot will reply with team member names and contact details, based on profile data, content ownership and use of keywords within conversations. The Who-Bot leverages the Microsoft Graph to learn from collaboration and communication patterns, acting as the ultimate personal networker for your company.
  • T-Bot is an assistant to help get the most out of Microsoft Teams, providing guidance on its growing set of features. Users ask the T-Bot, "How do I add a connector?" and it will provide the answer through the relevant Help topic.

The focus of these initial bots is to help a user find the infor­mation he needs within Microsoft Teams, which will give the software a definite adoption and engagement advantage over other Microsoft platforms, such as SharePoint, which historically has suffered from search complexity. Of course, because SharePoint -- through Office 365 Groups infrastructure -- is part of the Microsoft Teams universe, bots deployed within Microsoft Teams have the ability to pull information from SharePoint, as well.

Inside and outside of Microsoft Teams, the future for artificial intelligence (AI) is exciting. Vendors within the Microsoft partner ecosystem are developing solutions that are changing the ways in which users interact with their desktops and laptops. We're moving to a multi-sensory world, where we'll very soon control our digital environments through type, touch, and talk within our real, virtual, and augmented reality views. Microsoft Teams supports much of the common Bot Framework functionality. By default, any bot created using the Microsoft Bot Framework will be configured and ready to work in Microsoft Teams, and the registration process is fairly simple.

The process for creating a bot and adding it to the Microsoft Teams environment is straightforward:

  • Design the bot, ensuring it leverages all of the great features within Microsoft Teams, such as conversations, tabs, channel tabs or a static bot tab.
  • Create and register the bot in the Bot Framework.
  • Develop the bot, leveraging channel-specific functionality.
  • Test the bot.
  • Create the Microsoft Teams package and publish the bot by submitting it to the Office Store.

Competitive Landscape
Bots are becoming an increasingly important part of the way users interact with collaboration and knowledge management systems. In January, Slack announced an investment in 11 bot startups to help expand its Slack App Directory, with funding coming through the $80 million investment from the venture capitalist-backed Slack Fund. But other tech giants, such as IBM Corp., Amazon.com Inc., Twilio Inc., and Cisco Systems Inc. have been investing hundreds of millions in bots, personal assistants, and other innovative technology to boost personal and team productivity.

In a discussion within the Microsoft Tech Community site, several community members have expressed concerns over unclear bot security. While the current slate of bots acts as "passive" controls within the system, which means they are not actively "listening" to your content and conversations and must be activated or "invoked" to take action, the concern is that most users will not take the time to understand the secu­rity impacts of using a selected bot. If a bot can be added, most corporate employees assume it has been "vetted" by IT, and is safe for use. Security for bots is at the end-user level, which makes understanding what each bot does -- and whether they send data outside of the organization -- critical to your security team. The only other option is an all-or-nothing decision -- allow users to add bots, or turn off access to all bots for the organization.

Extending Microsoft's Vision
Chatbots or virtual personal assistants will account for 20 percent of user interactions with smartphones by 2019, according to Gartner Inc. Bots and connectors to various third-party tools and platforms is the first wave of opportunities enabled by AI. We're at the tipping point, with the rate of innovation increasing in speed -- and the future rushing to meet us. To help expand its own AI efforts, and alongside the creation of the new Microsoft AI and Research Group, the company announced new partner programs at the recent Inspire event, the company's annual partner conference that took place in Washington, D.C.

With more than 5,000 computer scientists and engineers focused on the company's AI product efforts, and its extensive partner ecosystem, Microsoft is well-positioned to achieve its stated goal of "democratizing AI for every person and organization, making it more accessible and valuable to everyone and ultimately enabling new ways to solve some of society's toughest challenges."

Are chatbots the future of software? While I doubt we'll see traditional software disappear anytime soon in favor of bot-only strategies, we'll definitely see bots added to and augmenting existing software and platforms, regardless of device or location. With the sheer density of features and the number of interfaces to support constantly rising, the traditional software model can make it difficult to ship enhancements. That's where bots can excel: tapping into legacy platforms and data archives, and quickly exposing new functionality.

Bots can help organizations reach their employees and their customers where they need to get work done -- via their smartphones, desktops and Web sites, extending the apps they already know and use, which is why chatbots will play a huge role in the future of technology.

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