Driving in heavy traffic on I-5, listening to a National Public Radio story on information overload, with my Apple Watch relentlessly buzzing my wrist, I realize I’m the living embodiment of overload.

The ways we connect digitally with one another have improved dramatically over the past 20 years. The flip side is that we’re more overwhelmed and interrupted than ever. Can technology get us out of the mess we’ve created for ourselves? 

3 Trends Feeding Into Effective Engagement

What this calls for is a fundamental rethink of how we work with one another digitally. We need to break out of the “productivity trap” to reach a higher level of effectiveness. We’ll start to outthink our distractions, our competition, and our limitations.

1. Virtual personal assistants make the leap from algorithmic consumer toy to cognitive business tool

It is physically impossible for the average person to process even a fraction of the information we are exposed to daily. Ninety-four percent of people reported feeling overwhelmed with information to the point of incapacitation at one point or another.

Many vendors are already experimenting with algorithmic and analytical approaches to help consumers prioritize and organize the incoming flood of consumer interactions: think Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Inbox. 

In 2016, we’ll start to move beyond algorithms. Cognitive computing will come of age to create virtual personal assistants that can think, understand and learn. And these same advances will be applied to our work life, not just our personal life. 

Virtual personal assistants will relieve us from the important but time-consuming work like setting up meetings, answering common questions (“Can you send me the weekly status report?”), and even following up on action items. More examples of cognitive-infused collaboration will emerge like IBM Watson inside of IBM Verse, or like Amy from startup X.AI.

2. Virtual expert advisors will make expertise available at scale

We all need instant access to the right information and expertise. And increasingly that expertise can come from anywhere:  a millennial new hire, a powerhouse partner, a highly influential customer advocate. 

All that expertise is also tagged and copied and remixed and analyzed at ever-faster rates. And the Internet of Things now adds environmental context from billions of connected devices. How can even the smartest person keep up?

In 2016, cognitive systems will start to learn from all that expertise, and serve back personalized and relevant insights through virtual expert advisors. Imagine typing an email or status update. Your expert advisor, like a spell checker on steroids, proactively reads your draft in real time to recommend relevant information, even suggest different wording to avoid coming across as negative. Your arguments are stronger – and you look smarter.

Virtual expert advisors democratize access to expertise, making it easier to share, find and leverage expertise regardless of the source, inside or outside the organization. Think of it as cloning our experts: only they won’t burn out. Instead they will teach our virtual expert advisors to make expertise available at scale. 

This market is exploding. We’ve been doing this since 2011 with Watson on Jeopardy. But others are looking at this as well, including Microsoft Active Graph, Google TensorFlow, Intel Saffron, and many more.

3. Cloud and mobile accelerate and amplify the disruptive power of empowered individuals

The life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company has plummeted from 75 years in 1955 to less than 15 years today. Disruption is now the norm. 

At the core are individuals hyper-enabled on cloud and mobile apps: a customer with a powerful voice, a partner or supplier reacting to market forces, an employee with little patience for the stodgy cultures built on outdated enterprise applications. 

Organizations should prioritize becoming cultures of deeper engagement that encourage continuous feedback, opinion sharing and organizational listening. Those cultures will be built on collaboration and communications platforms that bring together adaptive and personalized apps and services from a multitude of sources. And they will be integrated through an open, secure and hybrid cloud so that the CIO never feels like “shadow IT” is out of control.

Mobile will become the preferred way to engage at work. A recent survey indicated 60 percent of work emails are already accessed via mobile devices. Other collaboration tools aren’t far behind. Organizations will have to flip design thinking on its head, to deliver engagement experiences that aren’t just mobile afterthoughts, but designed first for mobile. 

What’s Next?

The Cognitive Business Era is still in its infancy. And it’s not just about smarter machines. It’s about software and systems that create more human engagement, because they will help you think more effectively, understand your specific context and needs, and learn from you over time. Exciting times ahead!

Title image by Mitchell Ng Liang an