A Business-First Approach to Digital Transformation

In part I of this series, we explored the definitions of Digital Transformation, IoT, and Smart Enterprise.

Digital transformation goes beyond normal organizational evolution. It is a metamorphosis enabled by new sources of information and new ways to interact with an organization’s eco-system. It’s said that “necessity is the mother of invention”—meaning we are satisfied with the status quo until some external force motivates us to change. An evolutionary breakthrough requires an external force that threatens organisms’ very existence—they must adapt or die. The Ice Age was a massive external force that caused many organisms to change. Likewise, today digital transformation is forcing change in businesses. And note that today’s external forces behave more like an incoming meteor than a slow-moving glacier. Slow evolution will not work here.

Over the last three decades, we have seen organizations change with the Information Age. The Data Warehouse phase illustrated valuable information existed in operational financial data that could be used to improve efficiencies within organizations. While working for EMC (now DellEMC), I had a lot of conversations with customers about building storage infrastructures for data warehouses. When sizing a storage infrastructure, knowing how much data is going to be written and how long the data will be stored is required. I was always amazed at how little guidance was provided to IT organizations from the sponsoring Business Unit as to the amount of data needed to be stored in the warehouse. The BU didn’t know what data they were going to collect, nor did they have any idea how long the data would need to be stored. We were often faced with sizing a project to collect everything and keep it forever. Bottom line: the BU didn’t have a clear set of objectives and believed if they didn’t jump on the data warehouse bandwagon, they would be destined to fail.

I am of the opinion that many organizations today are facing similar situations with IoT. Amara’s Law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Gartner’s research methodology, based on Amara’s Law, portrays its curved Hype Cycle in five phases. We may never know exactly where we are on the Hype Cycle—we can only tell where we were. For example, we can’t identify the peak until we see a decline.

I think we are somewhere on the left-ascending slope with inflated expectations and believe we have yet to reach the peak. I also consider the trough is an industry phenomenon and one that individual organizations don’t necessarily have to experience. It is the old story of missing goals: was the goal too high and, therefore, unattainable or was the goal appropriate and execution was faulty? Accurate goals are predicted by experiences. New technologies, by their nature, are hard to accurately predict since we don’t have the experience to base the prediction upon.

A Digital Transformation Game Plan

Just because we are early in the hype phase doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t be investing in IoT, but they should think business first and technology second. For example, when data warehouse customers approached their projects with a clear set of business challenges and objectives in mind, their projects were more successful than those who led with technology. This doesn’t mean that organizations that started with technology first weren’t eventually successful; they just spent more time and resources getting there.

A smart enterprise is one that looks at their place in the world today, seeks to understand how their environment is changing, determines how they need to evolve, and looks to technology, people, processes and data to determine how to reach their goals. As I point out in my blog about data loss, if you defined yourself in the 80s as being in the record business, you had a short life expectancy. But, if you defined yourself as being in the music business and were able to take advantage of the digital transformation at the time, your brick and mortar storefront could have evolved into a worldwide enterprise. As history showed, it was the new businesses that profited from the digital music industry emergence.

An Illustrative Example

Let’s take a look at a couple of anonymous hoteliers—Property A and Property B. Both properties are full-service five-star providers catering to business and leisure travelers. Both are seeking to improve their on-premises guest experiences. Marketing at Property A has determined their customers want star treatment. Their customers are looking for a high-touch experience, where the staff and employees know their names and can anticipate their every need (based on past experience). Property B determined their customers want a fully-automated experience—minimizing staff interaction, while maximizing guest independence. Both organizations:

  • Set clear objectives
  • Identified the loyalty app on their guests’ smart phones as the key to providing the desired guest experience

When a guest arrives at the front desk at Property A, the concierge greets them by name with their room reservation already pulled up on the console. The guest’s loyalty phone app identified the guest with the property’s wireless location-based service, prompting the guest’s photo to be displayed on the concierge’s console. When the guest stepped up the desk, the concierge selected the correct picture to get the guest’s information displayed on the screen. To the guest, it appears the concierge personally recognized them like they were a sports or entertainment star.

When a guest arrives at Property B, the guest’s loyalty phone app signals the wireless location-based service that the guest has arrived. The guest is checked into the hotel automatically. The guest room number and electronic key is pushed to the app on the phone and the guest goes directly to their room without ever talking to property personnel. The app may even provide turn-by-turn directions for the guest to get to their room in order to avoid asking for directions.

Both properties are similar with two different business goals. Looking at the two solutions from the Internet of Everything (IoE) perspective presented in part one of this series:

  • IoT: In these examples, an app on the smart phone is the networked device.
  • Data: The high-touch model requires photos of the guest and/or their family members. Property B needs to tie PCI information to the app with requisite data protection requirements.
  • Processes: These solutions need to tie the new functionality into the existing systems. If these properties belong to chains, how will information be updated and shared with the other properties. Will data be replicated locally on-demand when guests book a reservation? How long will it take for data to be updated? If the guest books a reservation from the parking lot or cab, will the data be ready when the guest walks into the lobby?
  • People/Personnel: Property A needs to train the desk clerks and other personnel that are expected to provide the star treatment to guests. Sensitivity training on how to handle the guest accompanied by a woman that does not look like his wife would be valuable. Property B personnel need to be trained how to respond when the app doesn’t work correctly and how to interject themselves into the process with minimal impact and maximum efficiency to the guest.

For more about digital transformation in hospitality, read the Avaya blog Five Ways Hotels Can Build a Successful Digital Strategy.

IoT and other emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence, are providing the capability to respond to environmental pressures and business opportunities in significantly new ways. I propose that while everyone will be successful with IoT (eventually) or become extinct, the enterprises that start with business requirements first and apply technology (old and new) second, will become smart sooner and last longer.

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Connected Health: The Digital Transformation of Care Innovation

All around the world, across the spectrum of disease, IT is changing our approach to chronic conditions and how we approach connected health. Text messages remind people living with HIV to take their medication and keep their medical appointments. Smartphone apps diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder by analyzing a user’s voice. Online forums enable breast cancer patients and survivors to trade information related to every stage of their care.

Collectively known as “connected health,” these recent, IT-driven innovations represent the intersection of digital technology and care. They’re transforming not only the way people manage their own health, but also the way they interact with their healthcare providers.

Unintended, but welcomed, consequences

By and large, connected health is an adaptation of technologies that were originally developed for other purposes. Mobile technology started out as a voice communication tool. Instant messaging was an outgrowth of online chat rooms. Social media became a means for making new friends.

Now these technologies have evolved and converged in a way that is overcoming formerly intractable barriers to care. By minding the agenda of day-to-day care, for instance, they give people the opportunity to stay in adherence with their treatments even where clinical visits are impractical due to cost, distance or availability. And by helping patients preserve their privacy, make sense of their conditions, and learn from others with similar experiences, health IT can lift the stifling veil of stigma from disease. 

The implications don’t stop with the individual. Connected health also helps people manage their own disease state so they don’t spread it to others. Across whole populations, it can allow interventions aimed at preventing chronic diseases, such as behavioral modifications that reduce the incidence of obesity.

Changing care innovation paradigms

In all these respects, connectivity is bringing to medicine a level of accountability and democratization that seemed unimaginable not so long ago. But it’s also dialing up the urgency of some unanswered questions. Among them:

  • What information is appropriate to gather? Not all information has value in a healthcare setting.
  • Will information remain proprietary? It’s unclear to what extent stakeholders are willing to advance the interests of the community ahead of the interests of a company.
  • What would a sharing paradigm look like? If companies were to share information, they would need a seamless, cohesive way to do it.
  • How will privacy and security be preserved? Artificial intelligence and machine learning are critical pieces of this equation.
  • How will healthcare use technologies to create new models of care? Today’s applications are largely geared toward improving quality and outcomes of existing care models.

There’s no one-size fits all solution to these questions. Neither is care innovation strictly a technology issue. Technologists must collaborate with clinicians, patients, and patient advocates to take care coordination and operational efficiency to the next level in helping people cope with long-term diseases. A new, technology-powered paradigm—one that transcends existing constraints of time and resources—can bring a welcome transformation in the ongoing management of care coordination and the patient experience.

Avaya Equinox, Now with Team Collaboration, Just Got More “Go-To”

 

I recently read that the Apple App Store now contains about 2.2 million apps. It’s an amazing number and a testament to the creativity of developers and the variety of our human interests and needs. But it made me wonder: how many apps can we really use on a regular basis & for what? Are they for fun? Are they informative? Do they increase team collaboration? If your smartphone is like mine, you’ve got a number of go-to apps that you use regularly, let’s say weekly, and probably a few you use daily or almost constantly. Then there are the Tier 2 apps, hiding in your folders that seldom see the light of day. It’s fun to delve into these folders every few months and rediscover the apps that I thought looked so interesting at the time but now languish for months on end.

What’s fun for personal apps however, can often become a nightmare in the work world. We all have someone in the office that has that need to be first with the latest hot app, to provide their take on what’s cool and what’s not and make everyone else feel a little short of the mark for not using it first. Of course most of these apps get frenzied activity for about 3 ½ days and then slip into oblivion. The issue for most of us is we simply have too much on the go to be constantly changing the way we work and coercing others to adopt our favorite app of the week.

What my work day really needs is a true go-to app. One that makes me more productive, more reachable, more on track and that lets me get to my tasks and meetings with a single touch. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know where I’m going with this: my go-to app is Avaya Equinox®. With its “mobile-first” Top of Mind screen, it provides me with at-a-glance visibility to meetings, instant messages and my call history giving me a single place to keep up to date and productive regardless of where my day may take me.

I’m happy to say that my go-to app just got more, well, “go-to”. The Avaya UC experience that I rely on every day is now being extended with the integration of a cloud-based team collaboration capability.  It gives me the full benefits of a team work environment that integrates voice, video, persistent team chat and messaging, along with file and screen sharing, all from within the Avaya Equinox experience.

Let me give you an example of these new Equinox team collaboration capabilities in action. I’m currently working with an external vendor on a major project. Our work will carry on for several quarters with new materials being created that need review, discussion, and likely several rounds of back and forth. To get the project kicked off and a vendor selected, we needed the full gamut of collaboration capabilities from simple voice calls to several all-day video conferences with participants joining from around the world – something easily managed with Avaya Equinox. 

The next step was to establish a core team and shift into a regular cadence of interaction. Adding the participants to the team collaboration space from both inside and outside Avaya was a snap and we were instantly able to communicate with one another – I use one to one instant messaging for small items or questions and chat when I want to involve the entire team for broader issues. Tasks get assigned within Avaya Equinox to keep our review cycles on track and we use the file sharing capability avoid clogging up our email. If I’m off line at some point, due to travel or other activity, a quick glance at Avaya Equinox gets me back up to speed with the team’s progress.

On a weekly basis, we usually need some face time, and Avaya Equinox provides complete meeting capabilities including audio / video conferencing with screen sharing so we all gain the advantages of personal interaction. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can all collaborate on content in real-time – it’s more productive and prevents misunderstandings across a widely distributed team. 

In many ways our team collaboration space has become a virtual “war room”.  Information is clearly visible and easily shared, I can see who’s available at any time and formal and informal discussions can be initiated with ease.

There’s no shortage of apps available to anyone with a mobile device and the time to spend browsing around an app store. The real challenge is finding those few go-to apps that you’ll use every day. If you aren’t using Avaya Equinox yet, I’d encourage you to give it a try. I think it will make your short list of “go-to” apps and in a month or two, you might wonder how you got through your day without it!

Building SMS Text Bots is a Breeze

As a nerdy guy, I love movies about other nerdy guys. Give me movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Theory of Everything,” or “Einstein and Eddington” (two nerdy scientists for the price of one), and I am in geek heaven. Recently, I was thrilled by “The Imitation Game”—the story of Alan Turing and his quest to break Germany’s WWII secret code. While I would never dare to compare myself to Mr. Turing, I like to think that we would have a few things in common. One area would be our shared interest in natural language processing and intelligent behavior.

Way back in 1950, Turing crystallized his research into these studies in what has become known as The Turing Test. Simply put, The Turing Test is a test of a machine’s ability to impersonate a human being. For a machine to pass The Turing Test, it must be able to participate in a conversation with a human being to the point where the human doesn’t realize that he or she is interacting with a machine. I can only imagine what Turing would think of today’s technology such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. Better yet, imagine Alan conversing with the robot, Sophia. Would he be excited or frightened? Personally, I am a little of both.

Real or Not

If you have been reading my articles on No Jitter and here on the Avaya blog, you know how enamored I am of the Breeze and Zang workflow designers. Although I have spent the bulk of my professional life writing software in programming languages such C++ and Java, I have fallen in love with how quickly I can use the Breeze/Zang tools to go from idea, to prototype, to a production-quality application. I like to say that if you can draw it on a whiteboard, you can “code” it with Breeze.

So, the day I decided to build a text bot, I knew exactly how I was going to do it. Starting with a list of things I wanted my text bot to do, I was soon drawing out message flows and decision points (if this, do that). Once I was happy I had captured all the salient points, I turned to my computer and began typing. Early on, I realized that there was no way on earth I could capture all the different text messages my application would need to process. For instance, how many different ways can you ask for the location of a store? “Where are you located?” “What is your address?” “What city are you in?” “How can I find you?” The variations are nearly endless.

To solve this problem, I turned to natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). That, of course, led me to the 500-pound gorilla in the room—IBM Watson. With Watson, I can build “Conversations” that allow me to create intents, entities, and dialogs. Intents are used to classify a request. You can think of entities as modifiers to those intents. Dialogs are the words you want to “speak” after determining the intent.

For example, consider the phrase “Are you open on Sunday?” Here, the intent could be classified as “hours.” The entity is “Sunday.” A proper dialog could be, “We are open on Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00.” To keep things simple, I created three intents for my bot: Directions, Holidays, Hours. Those intents resulted in three dialogs. I left off entities for now.

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My next decision point had to do with maintaining a conversation over many text messages. For that I choose Avaya’s Contest Store, which allows me to temporarily store information about a text conversation. This information can then be accessed over the life of the chat.

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Now that I had an engine to process incoming text messages (Watson), and a method of maintaining a chat’s context (Contest Store), it was time to launch the Avaya Breeze Engagement Designer. I will admit that I still had a few logic problems to work through, but I would not be stretching the truth if I said that I had a rough draft of my text bot up and running in less than an hour. Working through those remaining issues consumed another couple of hours, but in a fraction of the time it would take me to write my application in Java, my bot was accepting text messages, building contexts, and texting back replies.

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I should also say that my bot is fully multi-user. It didn’t matter if one or one hundred people were all texting in at the same time. My bot kept track of each individual conversation and no one received a text meant for someone else.

 
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While my example bot is fairly simple in terms of what it can handle, the framework is extendable to just about any SMS conversations you might want to support. Future plans have me using Context Store to save the entire conversation between human and machine. Not only could this be useful for determining how accurately my bot responds to incoming requests, but it could also be used to help better serve customers. A recorded chat sessions could be presented to a human agent in the case where the user moved from text to a phone call.

Next, I would love to incorporate some of the other features that Watson provides. For example, by detecting the tone/sentiment of the conversation, my bot could sense if the human was becoming frustrated with the answers he or she was receiving from my bot. This would allow the bot to either escalate the chat to a live agent, or have an agent follow up afterwards to help soothe over what might have been an unpleasant experience – or both.

Mischief Managed

Human to human conversations aren’t going away anytime soon, but more and more machines are going to step in to handle the easy to moderately hard stuff. The point is not to trick people into thinking they are talking to a human being. The point is that machines can handle tedious jobs without coming across as machines.

While I highly doubt that anyone will ever make a movie about Andrew and his fabulous text bots, it isn’t all about fame and glory, right? This is exciting technology and the fact that I can use Breeze to create sophisticated bots by easily combining powerful, but disparate technologies, is red-carpet stuff.