AI, IoT, intelligent systems take center stage in 2017 technology trends

Experts held forth on the promise and pitfalls of technologies that are changing today's environment at the Gilbane conference.

BOSTON -- To characterize 2017 technology trends, we might use the phrase intelligent systems. They have had a...

major effect on users' digital experience.

Technology trends like artificial intelligence (AI), chat bots, virtual reality, the internet of things (IoT) and data analytics are increasingly bringing new insights and data to traditional systems and processes. These intelligent systems are supposed to help decision-makers use data to take action: AI can help sales reps, marketers and customer service agents learn more about customers and prospects; chat bots can help service agents provide more efficient service; and IoT is collecting real-time data generated from a variety of connected things to not only provide proactive service on cars and fridges, but also offer cities valuable data about traffic congestion.

Intelligent systems are also helping alleviate some of the manual, time-consuming work of yesteryear with automated processes. Chat bots, for example, can provide the first line of customer service with automated replies for initial responses, helping staff members focus on more complex customer service needs. Chat bots also help companies address the needs of the 64% of consumers who believe a business should be available and contactable via messaging applications, according to Ubisend's "2016 Mobile Messaging Report."

While these technologies are evolving rapidly, industry observers noted that most companies aren't ready to execute on intelligent systems technologies. "An organizational ability to keep up is lagging behind the technology," said Frank Gilbane, founder of Boston-based Bluebill Advisors Inc., in a panel discussion of current trends and future predictions for technology at the Gilbane Digital Content Conference this week.

The theme among a panel of analysts gathered to discuss key 2016 and 2017 technology trends was while these technologies are gathering steam today in terms of capability, companies themselves are behind in their ability to adopt these technologies successfully. As one attendee noted, companies are still culturally lagging, and change management practices are key to ushering them into the next era.

"Change management has been a discussion in nearly every session I've been to," said a senior communications officer at a European bioinformatics organization, who requested anonymity. That makes sense, given the pace of technology being introduced to organizations like hers.    

The 2016 technology trend: Addressing multichannel challenges. Melissa Webster, program vice president for content and digital media technologies at IDC, said, "The current trend I'm seeing now is how we can deliver a truly multichannel experience with this evolving but heterogeneous, disconnected digital experience platform that is still in stages of evolution -- mobile devices, digital devices, social experiences, wearables, IoT, all kinds of new screens. That's one area that's really interesting and, along with that, the organizational changes to deal with the data silos."

The 2017 technology trend: Marketing departments owning technology. "I wonder often whether marketing will want to own so much of the technology function," Webster said. "The rationalization has to accelerate."

The 2016 technology trend: Focusing on the total customer lifecycle. "We still see a lot of marketing professionals focusing on awareness, building up to the sale not focusing on the full customer lifecycle," said Deanna Laufer, a senior analyst in customer experience at Forrester Research. "We advise our clients to focus on the full customer lifecycle, from awareness to re-engaging. What builds loyalty is whether you're making customers happy throughout the entire lifecycle. [Because] it costs five times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one, invest in the customer."

The 2017 technology trend: Voice is the new interface. "As digital interaction points proliferate ... chat bots have become hot," Laufer said. "When Facebook Messenger came out with chat bot capability, 20,000 brands adopted it within three months. One could argue that bots are also failing; Amazon Alexa is good at some things and not others.

"But the conversational interface is a trend for the future. Voice is the most natural form of interacting. We're going to see more and more ways to interact."

The 2016 and 2017 technology trend: Companies struggle to keep pace with technology change. In the short term, Alan Pelz-Sharpe, vice president and managing director of VOCalis at Digital Clarity Group in New York, said, "despite the huge opportunities, it's figuring out where you really are -- are you digitally ready?"

The technology has gotten way out in front of our ability to understand and implement it.
Tony Byrnefounder, Real Story Group

"The truth of the matter is that a lot of companies are not really in a position to execute; it will take time to restructure, reconfigure [and] rebuild to get to that point. Core IT infrastructure -- AI, machine learning, IoT capabilities -- that kind of technology is probably much more sophisticated than most of us realize," he said. "It is more capable than most of us realize, but it hasn't filtered up and is untapped. It hasn't made it to breakthroughs in the mainstream. The challenge is to make the customer experience a true experience [with these technologies]. That's an opportunity that no one has cracked."

The 2016 technology trend: Propping up legacy technology is failing. "People are finally giving up the ghost that they can provide next-generation customer experience off of old technology," said Tony Byrne founder of Real Story Group in Olney, Md. "In the past, you had an 'anchor vendor' -- Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe -- that would provide a platform of services. But, today, that approach creates a dilemma for organizations. Can they get there with these behemoth players?"

He said most companies are "finding their center" and putting technology investment behind core capabilities, then bringing on other technologies that are "good enough."

Byrne echoed Pelz-Sharpe in terms of the gap between technology developments and organizations' capacity for technology change. "The technology has gotten way out in front of our ability to understand and implement it," Byrne said.

"To become digitally effective, AI, virtual reality and other technologies are important. But your capacity to be successful with those technologies could be more important to driving long-term value with your customers."

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