Over the next few years, the way we relate to businesses and other organizations is going to change quite radically. The unlikely catalyst for this change? Chatbots. This technology represents a significant innovation that will change the way we connect with institutions and, I believe, even shift the way we think about our relationships with organizations.
A chatbot is a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods.
Automating Commercial Conversations
Today’s chatbots represent the early phases in automating engagement with an organization’s external stakeholders (i.e. customers, endusers, investors, and supporters). Over the next few years, many — if not most — of the conversations we once had with employees will be replaced by commercial chatbots.
The early stages of this chatbot-based stakeholder engagement, or what some are calling “conversational commerce,” will likely focus on customer support, sales and marketing — those stakeholder engagement processes with significant labor costs.
While cost savings will likely be the main catalyst for chatbot automation, there are other drivers that could also accelerate its adoption. Chatbots will enable organizations to rapidly and flexibly scale stakeholder engagement, both up and down, without the friction of hiring and training new staff. They will also act as a kind of quality control for ensuring more consistently branded experiences for stakeholders’ interactions with organizations. Chatbot-mediated engagement will also leave a highly structured trail of data to help organizations continuously improve stakeholder engagement processes. Chatbots may even become the way we interact with a company’s products and services over the Internet of Things.
Chatbot automation is likely to have a devastating impact on employment, and while that is an angle I frequently cover, today I want to focus on the effect on stakeholders.
Fighting Fire with Fire
As organizations automate their communications with chatbots, the volume of those communications is likely to increase exponentially. We’ve seen this kind of commercialization in earlier media like physical mail, email, websites, and social media, and it’s quite likely that chatbots will generate a new and invasive form for our messaging tools.
In response, we will fight fire with fire through our own forms of automated response — particularly Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs), like Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Hound and the exciting, new Viv. We’ll use VPAs to do all kinds of things, of course; things like managing our schedules, coordinating with friends and family, and finding information. At its core though, the VPA is a kind of next-generation operating system for managing the future of apps, many of which will take the form of chatbots. In other words, VPAs won’t just be about dealing with overly enthusiastic bots; they will be the way we orchestrate the growing number of organizations using chatbots to engage and collaborate with us.
A Bot Sandwich
One way to think about all this is as a kind of “bot sandwich,” where one slice of bread is a chatbot working for the organization and the other is a VPA representing the stakeholder. In this case, the sandwich isn’t made of peanut butter or bologna, but business processes that require stakeholder engagement — like sales or customer support.
It’s worth noting that part of this bot sandwich was articulated years ago by Doc Searls in his “Vendor Relationship Management” (VRM) framework for managing our relationships with the various businesses and other institutions in our lives. Whether VPAs eventually do fulfill that VRM vision will depend on whether they truly do have stakeholder interests at heart — and that largely comes down to a question of business models. But that is a question for another day.
Talking to Machines
In the long-run, what is most significant about the coming chatbot revolution is what it will mean about how we connect with organizations. Going forward, when we talk to institutions we will increasingly be talking to machines.
Today, most of our interactions with companies, government agencies, schools and other organizations are still mediated by employees — which is to say, mediated by people. Chatbots are conversational technology: a way for machines to interact with us on our own terms. This technology is going to facilitate a much greater flow of communications between humans and the machines. More than that though, it’s going to change the interface humans and organizations.
One of my favorite metaphors for describing this interface between organizations and external stakeholders is the biological cell and the way its membrane separates what’s inside the cell from what’s outside it. These membranes aren’t just barriers; they’re laced with receptors and channels that make the cell remarkably intelligent in the way it exchanges information and materials with its environment. For a more detailed understanding, see: Organizational Structure: the Biology of Great Organizations.
Changing Our Relationship to Organizations
At this very moment in history, we are transitioning to a new reality where the membrane surrounding our organizations is becoming increasingly automated. Our points of contact, which just ten years ago were made primarily of human interactions, are now becoming increasingly machine-mediated. The conversational abilities of chatbots give them a critical role in this shift.
This kind of automation of stakeholder engagement is going to change more than just the way we communicate with organizations; it’s going to change the way we think about our relationship with them. In this new world, it’s not just that our interactions with organizations are mediated through machines, it’s that what we are interacting with will, increasingly, be a machine.