Intelligent Conversations

Intelligent Conversations

By Nathaniel Palmer  |  October 14, 2017  

Having intelligent conversations today rarely happens on the phone. Here we are in 2017, the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, and with it the single greatest step towards digital disruption. Yet nobody calls any more, and for some, not even our mothers. Over the last decade we have seen an extraordinary shift in customer expectations – what has ultimately created the need for digital transformation. How digital are your processes today? Many will answer this in terms of their mobile strategy, yet most them will have missed the point.

It is not the “phone” in “iPhone” which excites consumers and changes expectations – it is the promise of (and expectation for) instant gratification. If you cannot provide what I want immediately (an answer, a ride, a drone delivered beer), I will quickly find someone who can. The value you offer to me erodes the longer it takes you to satisfy my desire, and the business value I represent to you drops just as fast, as I am become increasingly likely to move on to your competitor.

Today in 2017, the greatest catalyst for digital disruption is not mobility, it is conversations. The most emblematic and palpable device representing digital disruption is not the iPhone or iPad, it is the Amazon Echo or Google Home. To be certain, as devices go they are relatively pedestrian – merely a speaker and a microphone. Certainly nothing as transformative or ground-breaking as the iPhone was at the time. But speak you shall be heard. What drives this innovation is the cognitive capability offered by Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. These translate verbal commands into discrete results – conversations instead of taps onto a tiny screen. Soon these conversations will be heard across an infinite spectrum of enabled devices, and the way our customers will expect to interact will be not through taps and clicks, but conversations.

Without BPM It’s All Talk And No Action

Does this sound like Business Process Management (BPM)? Perhaps not the way BPM has been leveraged for the last decade. Yet in the era of digital transformation, BPM will indeed follow a conversational model. This is because the best-equipped platform for enabling any business and consumer to conduct business through conversations is in fact BPM. BPM provides not only the means to digitize customer-centric processes, but the connect operations and business rules needed to support any customer transaction.

Today, Alexa can add an item to a shopping list, but the transaction essentially stops there. Customers will quickly grow impatient with this level of capability, and we know they will demand the ability to complete the transaction – confirm prices, schedule services, negotiate terms, reschedule a delivery. All things which today are simply best handled through conversations. Is this not what AI-enabled commerce promised to deliver? Yes, but AI is merely the interface (when it has a voice in front of it). How it enables digital transformation is via BPM.

AI As A Process Interface

Clearly digital transformation involves more matters than managing customer interaction. How might routine work change under this model? Consider how you received work today, with an alert sent via email or text. Your next step is review the task and figure out what’s next, but instead imagine an AI assistant who parses and summarizes the task, and asks for response (i.e., interacting just as you would with Alexa). The task might be an exception that requiring approval, and within the summary is context from the decision logic (e.g., business rules) which outlines the circumstances. If may seem farfetched to imagine Alexa or Google Assistant being integrated with your internal core systems. Indeed, tightly coupling would be awkward at best, yet for a BPM environment it would be no more exotic than exposing interaction via an iPhone or other mobile device. What the growing spectrum of AI engines provide is the ability to respond in a natural language statement as you would with any assistant, bridging the gap by interacting with the BPMS, as well as the ability to ask questions to further drilldown, or to be told when something requires their undivided attention. This highlights a critical principal of both the future of software and digital transformation – to re-envision the structure of the task to be not a single, discrete unit of work, and to remove the distinction between what supports a task and the task itself.

Of course, all work can't be done via voice prompt, or for that matter text or email. Yet many tasks can't be, and the ability to have work truly follow the worker, for both convenience and expediency, underscores the value of separating how work is performed, from the work itself. AI is merely an abstraction of the interface, and the business logic comprised of the rules and process definition remain within the BPM environment. Core systems remain intact, processes are followed and reported on, yet this abstraction of the interface into conversation components greatly simplifies the interaction between participants. Beyond simply supporting verbal commands, it may extend (by leveraging both BPM and AI system capabilities) to proactively chasing down the other participants and asking qualifying questions until the work is successfully completed, based on criteria defined within configurable rules.

BPM and Intelligent Automation

Today process automation (sans BPM) still looks a lot like investments in industrial automation for the last 40+ years, designed for optimal efficiency and consistency. Industrial engineers designed the ideal routes to move objects in the most efficient ways possible. Yet the challenge we face is that fixed pathways are not consistent with the way we work. We do care about what’s in the package. We care about context. This is foundational to digital transformation.

In a conversational model, we cannot fully script out in advance the sequence of steps and end-to-end processes without knowing the exact context of any given task we will be performing. Leveraging BPM over other modes of process automation expands the range of what can be automated or otherwise managed. It is the combination of process, rules and data which frame today’s BPM platforms which enables “intelligent automation.”

Today’s BPM platforms deliver the ability to manage work while dynamically adapting the steps of a process according to an awareness and understanding of content, data, and business events that unfold. This is the basis of intelligent automation, enabling data-driven processes adapting dynamically to the context of the work, delivering the efficiency of automation while leveraging rules and policies to steer the pathway towards the optimal outcome. For these reasons BPM is the ideal platform for digital transformation. Not old wine in new bottles, but the critical leverage point for capitalizing on digital disruption.



Rated the #1 Most Influential Thought Leader in Business Process Management (BPM) by independent research, Nathaniel Palmer has the led the design for some of the industry’s largest-scale and most complex process automation and digital transformation initiatives, involving investments of $500 million or more. Today he is Director, Business Architecture for Serco, Inc. as well as the Executive Director of the Workflow Management Coalition (since 2006). Previously he had been the BPM Practice Director of SRA International, and prior to that Director, Business Consulting for Perot Systems Corp, as well as spent over a decade with Delphi Group serving as Vice President and CTO.

He frequently tops the lists of the most recognized names in his field, and was the first individual named as Laureate in Workflow. He is a regular speaker at leading forums and industry user groups, and has authored or co-authored over a dozen books on process automation and digital transformation including “BPM Anywhere” (2016), “Intelligent BPM” (2013), “How Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” (2012), “Social BPM” (2011), “Mastering the Unpredictable” (2008) which reached #2 on the Best Seller’s List, “Excellence in Practice (2007), “Encyclopedia of Database Systems” (2007) and “The X-Economy” (2001).