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It’s no secret that chatbots are growing in popularity. From Facebook’s ecommerce bots for consumers to a plethora of customer service tools that now rely on chatbots to interface with customers, it’s clear that consumer chatbots have hit mainstream. Even Apple is expanding its commitment to chat technology with the release of Business Chat at a recent WWDC, allowing consumers to interact with businesses through iMessage.

Because chatbots can automate across a variety of repeatable tasks such sales, customer service, and online banking, they are also ideal candidates for the workplace. In fact, 80 percent of businesses are already leveraging chatbot technology. But what about employee-to-company interaction through bots? Chatbots designed for the work environment, or workbots, could become the next step function in work productivity.

Automation can become such a distraction

One of the biggest challenges for the modern corporate citizen is the variety of complex systems that are needed in order to get things done. Organizations have spent a fair amount of effort in the past three decades automating nearly every aspect of their business — from inventory management to quote-to-cash to order fulfillment. The problem with these applications is that they are too complex for typical employees and were designed to be used on a desktop, and interacted with via a mouse and keyboard. Furthermore, in order to get their job done and fulfill their commitments, a typical employee must interact with multiple applications, each with its own learning curve.

Companies have been struggling to simplify the interfaces to these applications as well. It started in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the web, when most of the application front-ends were browser-enabled to allow client-free access. This was followed by employee portals, which consolidated all the useful applications into a central place, and is now continuing with enterprise mobility, which is attempting to expose some of the most useful business workflows as mobile apps.

While enterprise apps make sense for tasks that are performed frequently or on a regular basis (like submitting your weekly time sheet or approving expenses), the valuable real estate they occupy on the already cluttered home screen makes less sense for the long-tail of tasks that are accessed less frequently.

So yes, there might be “an app for that,” but … do I even want an app?

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Workbots to the rescue 

Workbots could be the cure for what’s often called “app fatigue.”

They work within the corporate messenger environment (such as Jabber, Skype for Business, Slack, and others) and respond to commands and questions in natural language, whether typed or dictated. They have access to all the corporate information needed to get the job done and can perform complex tasks across multiple systems. The workbot knows what tasks are executed in which back-end system, so the user doesn’t have to know. Because bots rely on natural language processing (NLP) — the ability of humans to interact with computers using free-form language — workbots can help an employee get to the starting point quickly and without any training, in the same way a search engine would, and then help guide the user through the task in a step-by-step fashion.

Chat is no longer just about communication, it’s about bringing the user information. For instance, in the workplace, people could use workbots to put together a schedule, get assignments or basic information, find other employees, and approve or deny requests. The airline industry is a good example, ripe to take advantage of workbots for workers at the edge of the enterprise: baggage handlers, warehouse employees, and truck drivers. Rather than investing in additional IT equipment, those workers can use workbots to gather information, report sick days, or check on the status of baggage.

Natural language processing is here to stay, and it is already transforming the way people work. Generation Y and millennials already prefer to communicate via chat conversation, so workbots fit with their expected mental model of getting things done in the context of a chat conversation. This by no means is a replacement for mobile apps, as there are perfectly good scenarios where apps make lots of sense. Rather, workbots are an augmentation that can extend the reach of back-office applications to the very edges of the enterprise and result in a significant productivity gain, faster response time, and better data accuracy, which in turn leads to better decision making.

Via Venture Beat