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Microsoft, Google and ServiceNow launch automation services that accelerate digital transformation

by Alex Bakker, Blair Hanley Frank
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Last week, a group of major technology vendors showed off new examples of how enterprises can use automation as part of their digital transformation. Businesses that succeed at digital transformation can take users’ input once and connect it with all the systems needed to complete their intended action – no matter how disparate they might be. 

Automating processes is critical to producing successful user experiences, because using humans to tie all those systems together is slow and costly. The technologies displayed this week use a combination of artificial intelligence and task automation to produce faster, better systems for consumers, knowledge workers and developers. Microsoft, Google and ServiceNow each unveiled systems that reach new frontiers of automation to improve and facilitate digital transformation. 

Consumer automation

One of the splashiest demos from this week was Google Duplex, an automated system that uses machine learning to sound like a human in a telephone conversation making an appointment at a hair salon. It was a remarkable technical feat, since the system appeared to fool the human on the phone thanks to a series of person-like tics and accurate responses. 

Duplex presents several interesting challenges and opportunities for enterprises. It shows how automation can handle existing manual processes that were never designed for machine interaction. Customer service teams could find themselves dealing with bots that sound like people, and customers could end up expecting that interaction to work as well as a phone call involving two humans. It also places further pressure on enterprise IT to deliver similar experiences at work.

It’s worth noting that Google has a history of showing fantastic technical demos at its I/O developer conference that end up less impressive in practice. While the system can handle a few domains, Duplex is not able to carry on a general conversation. Right now, Google doesn’t have a timeline for making it available to the public.  At its Build conference on Monday, Microsoft unveiled new machine learning technologies designed to intelligently automate consumer interactions with enterprises. The company’s Speech Devices SDK is supposed to simplify the creation of intelligent speakers, so makers of drive-thru systems could use the same sort of technology that underpins Cortana in new products – without involving Microsoft’s virtual assistant.  ServiceNow unveiled its Virtual Agent product, which should help build chatbots that automate experiences for end users. ServiceNow showed how its Virtual Agent could handle a request for a new device by opening a chat and describing a broken device. This is aimed at reducing call volumes and allowing support representatives to focus on cases that require human skills. Last week, ServiceNow acquired Parlo, a natural language understanding tool it intends to integrate into its platform to facilitate natural language service requests and chatbot functionality in the future.

All of this is part of a broader trend among technology vendors including Microsoft, AWS, ServiceNow and Google to provide enterprises with machine learning capabilities through cloud platforms. Integrating those intelligent services into applications is a way for companies to bring intelligent automation into their technology. Conversational AI systems are ready for prime time use in the enterprise and are important for meeting enterprise customer needs, both internally and externally.

Workplace automation

Microsoft demonstrated what the meetings of the not-too-distant-future could look like with a demo during CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote that used machine learning to identify meeting participants and automatically transcribe their comments. In addition, the system Microsoft showed off was able to extract action items from the conversation and turn them into tasks for individual participants. 

Ordinarily, a human would have played the role of notetaker, extracting some of what people said and hopefully capturing all the tasks discussed. The automation at play in that demo reduces the work involved in getting people together for a meeting.

Microsoft isn’t shipping a live meeting notetaking product yet. Given the company’s focus on promoting productivity through Office 365, it doesn’t seem that far off, especially since the company already has a live transcription service and text understanding services available through its cloud platform. 

ServiceNow, meanwhile, is focused on making its IT service management system user friendly, both for the IT employees fulfilling service requests, and for those workers submitting them. The company made major improvements to the service’s user experience as part of its brand refresh released this week. Additionally, its acquisition of SkyGiraffe in late 2017 is helping make mobile applications and interactions better for employees. 

The service management software firm also highlighted improvements to its Flow Designer workflow automation tool, a low code tool that enables line-of-business employees to automate ServiceNow tasks with simple syntax. Its end goal is to help people eliminate automatable work across all processes on the Now platform. 

While bringing automation into the workplace can seem scary for employees who fear being replaced by computerized processes, we’ve seen workers at companies that have begun automation integration keep their jobs and move on to other work because of the time saved through the reduction of other tasks. At least for the time being, this sort of automation seems like more of an opportunity than a threat for information workers.

Development automation

Microsoft showed off a new Azure Dev Spaces product that uses Kubernetes to spin up individual workspaces for developers to test their changes before pushing them out to another environment. The system works by spinning up new test environments backed by Kubernetes clusters, then making them available to people within a team for further testing before moving to production.

Those environments behave like the production application but are isolated from what’s currently running, so developers’ changes don’t break enterprise applications. All the heavy lifting of setting up the clusters is handled by Microsoft’s service, so developers shouldn’t have to spend time maintaining their environments and ensuring parity with the main workspace for their code.  ServiceNow also is getting into the DevOps space with its forthcoming Enterprise DevOps offering, which combines the company’s Agile Development product with a set of upcoming integrations into other services like Microsoft Teams, Atlassian Jira, Git and Jenkins. Those connections will make it easier for developers and IT operators to work together to get software out the door more rapidly. 

Increasing development cadence through DevOps practices (and the technology services that support them) is crucial to digital transformation. To compete, companies must ship software more rapidly to support customer needs, add new capabilities and fix bugs. Getting to that point requires significant automation to ensure technical infrastructure can safely support the needed velocity.

About the authors

Alex conducts research and writes about emerging trends and markets for ISG Insights. He focuses specifically on integration, analytics, social business and super emerging technologies, including the Internet of Things, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality and drones. Alex manages and analyzes survey data, conducts briefings and interviews, and publishes research documents as a part of the ISG Insights team. 

Blair Hanley Frank is a technology analyst covering cloud computing, application development modernization, AI, and the modern workplace.