Rise of the bots and the automation of business

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This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of CRN magazine.

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Rise of the bots and the automation of business

"There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires.”

It’s a memorable quote from The Crucible, one of my favourite plays I studied at school. But what is the connection between a bitter woman blaming witchcraft for her misfortune and technology?

This image of wheels turning within wheels sprang to mind after spending several hours exploring the potential of Slack.

For those who haven’t come across it yet, Slack is the hip messaging app for businesses. It emerged out of the ashes of a failed video game. Launched in February 2014 by a co-founder of Flickr, it took just 18 months to get to a million users – 300,000 of them paying customers – and a US$2.8 billion valuation. “I have never seen viral enterprise app takeoff like this before: all word of mouth,” tweeted Marc Andreessen, Netscape founder and now venture capitalist at Andreessen Horowitz.

Slack’s mission is to replace internal email. Highly collaborative workplaces such as media companies have moved quickly to the platform, including Quartz, Vox Media, Slate, Fusion, The Times of London, Thought Catalog and the Associated Press. It’s not just the cool interface, custom emoticons and private chat rooms that make Slack so interesting. Underneath Slack is a data integration platform that can present information from many sources within one application.

For example, you can set up a Slack “channel” to show tweets from your company or personal Twitter account. Or you could have a stream of tasks from your task manager in another channel. I have one channel that streams the list of new contacts that Gmail for Work adds from inbound emails. My PA can see that channel in Slack and has a daily task to add those people to all my social channels including LinkedIn, and so on.

The next level is a sophisticated notifications module. You could screen these messages so that only those containing a highlighted word send you a notification. That could be your name. It could be words frequently used by unhappy customers – if someone’s complaining, you’ll get an alert on your phone and respond immediately. Slack does mobile extremely well.

The “wheels within wheels” bit is  yet another layer of sophistication. You can easily program bots called Slackbots that send messages to you or others when certain conditions are met. For example, software design firm Normative created a Slackbot that looks up the latest arrival times for Uber cars and whether surge pricing is in effect. Just message the Slackbot the location of your next meeting and it will reply.

Normative’s reception is unstaffed. Visitors are directed to an iPad running Slack to select the employee they want. A custom Slackbot sends a private message to notify the host wherever they happen to be, not just when they are at their desk.

The idea of businesses programming their own bots is incredible. I recommend reading an article on Medium, headlined “2016 will be the year of conversational commerce”, in which author Chris Messina talks about the evolution of Facebook Messenger into a communications platform for integrated services such as Uber. Messina is a former employee of Google, “inventor” of the hashtag and now developer experience lead at Uber.

He talks about the potential to integrate all sorts of services triggered by keywords in your conversation. Thinking about flying to Paris? Click on the words “flying to Paris” to check the cost of a return ticket. Slack opens the door to developers – and resellers – to develop similar experiences for businesses. These services might not be external like ordering Ubers, but could trigger a request from another department.

The options are mind-boggling. We are talking about wholesale automation of businesses. That is an extremely exciting, if slightly unnerving, prospect. And it should deliver bucketloads of work for the channel. Time to create your first Slackbot. Tweet me @sholtomac your idea for a Slackbot, I’d love to hear it.  

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