kid in wizard costume
PHOTO: Chase Clark

As artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots start to infiltrate the digital workplace it’s been interesting to watch the emergence of the “enterprise digital assistant” concept. While "digital assistant" may conjure up cute images of robot helpers, they are effectively apps that act as an interface with other systems to aid in task completion and search. In some cases, they include a chat interface and possibly even a little machine learning thrown in for good measure.

The concept is persuasive — who wouldn't want a friendly, convenient digital assistant that works quietly in the background to help you get things done? (Though I admit it also brings back memories of Clippy, Microsoft’s incredibly annoying help feature embedded in Word.)

Offering an enterprise digital assistant can tick the "we are doing something about AI" box for potential new hires, who arguably might find this attractive. More importantly, if it really helps employees get things done in smarter, more efficient ways, and drive collaboration, then it can have a positive impact on day to day work. No wonder digital workplace teams are exploring this technology. Let's look at a few examples.

Liberty Mutual’s Digital Assistant

US financial services company, Liberty Mutual Insurance, homegrown digital assistant is one of the success stories. The assistant started as an intranet feature that aggregated approvals and evolved into a highly sophisticated tool based on a microservices architecture, which resides on the company's intranet and includes a chatbot. With it, employees can do many things which previously had to be done within different systems. 

The company has won awards for its efforts and has even packaged it up as a solution for other companies to buy.

Related Article: Want to Use Chatbots and Smart Speakers in the Workplace? Think Big 

Marcel From Publicis Groupe

For the digital workplace geeks among us this is exciting stuff, but like anything associated with artificial intelligence, it is possible to get over-excited. For example, Publicis Groupe, a global advertising and media business, is investing in an AI-driven enterprise assistant called Marcel, which will principally be accessed by 80,000 employees to help find knowledge and experts, and drive collaboration.

The company has lofty ambitions for Marcel, claiming it will “completely reinvent the way that we work for ourselves and our clients” and that it has “broken the divide between data, creativity and technology,” and will break “the barriers between talent and opportunity.” And as if that wasn't enough, Marcel will also create “the first truly, borderless, frictionless enterprise workforce … and usher in a new era of creativity and innovation” — although to be fair this is also attributed to structural changes within the company.

Don't get me wrong, Marcel looks genuinely exciting. And if it helps encourage collaboration where work was previously siloed in agencies, it can have a significant impact. A certain amount of hyperbole is to be expected from advertising and PR folk, but it's interesting to see the prominence in external communications the company has given to what is essentially the deployment of an internal digital workplace tool. I really don’t think we’d get the same publicity or excitement about an intranet, although the goals for both are fairly similar. I suspect the internal promotion may be a little more measured in tone.

Related Article: AI, Bots, Collaboration and Teams: The Dynamics Shaping the Workplace

Deakin University’s Genie

Deakin University in Australia provides another example of an organization talking up its digital assistant. Branded as Geniean early promotional video painted the app as an indispensable assistant that provides access to tasks, learning materials, personalized information and even makes suggestions around life goals. It even has a personality. The brand potential for a digital assistant here is more obvious, showing a progressive university investing in engaging technology to help students, making it sound like a good place to study.

Related Article: 7 Examples of Digital Workplace Chatbots?

Is it an Assistant or Is it an App?

It will be interesting to watch as other digital assistants emerge. I suspect business will fall into two camps when approaching them: either assistants which start off as chatbots and then assimilate more and more functionality, or assistants which start off more as an employee app and then add a conversational interface. The line between apps and enterprise digital assistants will get fuzzier as more companies invest in conversational interfaces for workplace apps.

Some organizations have been focusing on creating single apps which bundle different capabilities together to help drive the employee experience. The idea isn’t new — Barclays did a very convincing app for frontline staff a few years back — and these tools are particularly powerful when they integrate with different systems and provide a window into the digital workplace. For example, you may be able to book a meeting room, submit expenses, view annual leave and search for people all from one app on your mobile device. 

Whatever we call them, the trend will only continue as enterprises continue to actively invest in AI, chatbots and other means of improving digital workplace navigation and in turn, employee experiences. New products are sure to emerge here as well. I predict we'll see more Marcels and Genies, with clearer results, as businesses introduce these digital assistant-like apps to act as aggregators for different systems.