What’s the role of AI in the digital workplace now and in the future?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has received a lot of attention in the media and now seems to be a feature in many digital products. This focus (and hype) has meant that many organisations, support functions, lines of business and teams are actively considering how to use AI and what their corresponding strategy should be. Of course, intranet and digital workplace teams will want to think about how they are going to use AI.

In some respects, the hype and noise about AI is a distraction, and can even be off-putting. However, once you take away the exaggerated claims, unpack the term a little and look to its genuine potential, we can see that AI will be making a real difference in the digital workplace in the very near future.

Unpacking AI

Its worth considering what AI actually means. You can take your pick from various definitions such as quite specific academic meanings; however when most of us use the term AI we think of computers, machines or robots carrying out actions that  mimic human intelligence, for example when they can learn to be more effective at solving problems, deliver insights or understand the more subtle nuances of human language.

This means that AI isnt actually one specific technology; its actually an umbrella term which could be applied to anything from natural language processing to machine learning to autonomous vehicles to even just some very smart algorithms.

Its also worth remembering that what we regard as AI today might not be regarded as AI tomorrow. For example, we might regard the improved ability of dictation software to automatically capture what we say as text as an example of artificial intelligence. But we might not regard Optical Character Recognition (OCR) where scanned documents are turned into text as AI now, although perhaps we would have done so in the past.

What technologies constitute AI is therefore quite subjective and can change. It also means that every product under the sun can claim to have AI, potentially reducing AI to a marketing label akin to a term like hand-made or organic.

Where are we with AI in the digital workplace?

As a rule, AI is still not that advanced in the everyday digital workplace. There are a few organisations who may be considering their approach and strategy to AI, but in reality, AI tends to be apparent in separate use cases or as a feature of different products.  As far as I am aware, there is nobody who can say AI is a constant and convincing thread through the standard digital workplace accessed by most employees.

Also, while there is something which still sounds quite futuristic about AI, actually most of the active use cases for it in the digital workplace are generally every day needs which we all face. For example, AI might provide suggestions for content youre interested in, help you to tag articles, provide suggestions for responses in online conversations or to anticipate the tasks you need to complete.

In particular, lets look at five areas where AI is having an impact on the digital workplace now and in the future.

1. Understanding and responding with natural language

Understanding, interpreting and responding to our natural speech is one of the most exciting areas of AI. Many of us have experienced the power of conversations with Siri or Alexa in the consumer world; thats rapidly coming to the digital workplace through chatbots that can help employees answer questions, find items, complete transactions and semi-automate processes.

For example, here at Content Formula weve worked with Microsofts language understanding service (LUIS) in helping to implement a chatbot at accountancy firm Haines Watts. The bot can be trained to understand more and more and learns as more employees converse with it.

While its still early days for workplace bots, their ability to understand and converse with us naturally will get more sophisticated quite rapidly. Anybody whos watched the jaw-dropping Google Demo of an AI assistant booking a hairdressing appointment over the phone, can see where we could be heading.

Digital workplace virtual assistants that help us with the more routine tasks may well become commonplace. There is also likely to be more voice activation involved, for example some companies are experimenting with an Alexa in meeting rooms to take requests.

2. Making sense out of data

AI in the digital workplace has a major role in trying to make sense of a lot of potentially disparate data from different systems. This has the power to give us insights into things we didnt know or didnt notice such as patterns in user behaviour or how to optimise the workplace to support better productivity.

Where the fields of data analytics and AI start and finish is difficult to ascertain, but this is an area where we are bound to see more growth as the analytical engines of different products become sharper and use machine learning to recognise patterns which we can act upon.

One element of the digital workplace where AI is likely to have an impact is the Internet of Things with more connected devices and sensors around the building providing data which can be turned into insights into workplace behaviour and design.

3. Extracting meaning from content

Another way AI is helping to make sense out of data is extracting meaning from content. Using natural language processing and machine learning means that more effective sentiment or text analysis can be applied to individual pages or even whole document libraries.

This is already a core feature of some products, but improved capabilities have a whole range of potential uses. These include improving search and findability, automatically tagging content, suggesting relationships between documents and items based on meaning, supportinga barometer of employee sentiment, identifying common issues coming from customers and many more besides.

There are also other highly targeted uses ranging from building model documents such as contracts, identifying fraud, producing automated synopses, spotting reputational risks and more.

4. Anticipating what you need

In the consumer world we are very used to powerful suggestion engines on Netflix or Amazon which seem to know exactly what our tastes are when viewing or buying suggestions. Powerful AI and a massive dataset have made these suggestions for our tastes remarkably accurate.

Suggested content or actions is a common feature on many digital workplace products and channels; from related items on an intranet page to Workplace by Facebook offering suggestions for groups to follow to Delve presenting the information youre likely to be interested in.

AI has the power to make these suggestion engines more powerful, anticipating what we need every day as we carry out different processes in the digital workplace. For example, the Wizdom intranet uses AI to suggest tags for content. saving time and effort for content owners. Imagine, this taken further with AI, suggesting everything we need to attend to, view and worry about at the start of the working day.

5. Learning to do things better

All of the above elements of AI assume some machine learning, so that processes improve, building on the cumulative data, inputs and preferences. AI in the digital workplace can only get better.

What about the future?

In this article weve tried to look at AI in the digital workplace today and what it might being in the near future. Of course, in the more distant future, the possibilities are endless. Personalised workplace robots? Maybe!  Some kind of weird-augmented-reality-thing that seems to read your mind? Who knows!

By its very definition AI will change, as the things that raise our eyebrows today become normalised tomorrow. But currently AI is an exciting prospect for the digital workplace which will have real world impact sooner than we think.

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