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Midyear Pause: 6 Weeks, 7 Events, and the State of Collaboration

Over the last six weeks, I have attended or spoken at seven industry events in the U.S. and Canada. If that doesn't cover the ground, I don't know what does. After a while, it's all a blur, and that's why I take lots of notes. With that much immersion in and around collaboration, it's a good time to pause and share three trends I think bear watching for the second half of 2017.

They are:

1. AI and its extended family

There's little doubt now that artificial intelligence, or AI, is the big thing in 2017 -- much like cloud was last year, and mobility before that. AI encompasses a larger orbit at some events than others, and to varying degrees chat bots, the Internet of Things, machine learning, deep learning, cognitive computing, and natural language processing get pulled in. I have no doubt that family will become larger before year-end.

We all love to follow big trends, whose shelf lives generally extend beyond a year. Cloud and mobility continue driving the collaboration space, and AI is muscling its way into that club. Of course, it helps when pioneers like IBM and major universities are behind it, and now you don't have to wait long until AI gets mentioned in tech conversations.

Unlike these other trends, AI has a man vs. machine overtone, and across all these recent events, the sentiment is quite strong on both sides -- us vs. them, good vs. evil. On the dark side, I could go on about the inevitable Big Brother scenarios, but let me just leave one quick note of caution raised at the Canadian Telecom Summit, held earlier this month in Toronto.

Renowned privacy expert Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University, emphasized the distinction between privacy and secrecy. She minced no words, voicing concerns about the rise of the surveillance state, which is the domain of that latter realm of secrecy. Citizens must be more vigilant in protecting their privacy, the absence of which enables secretive, authoritarian states, she said. This is nasty stuff, especially in today's toxic political climate, and an important reminder that the technology world we slavishly inhabit is not a vacuum -- it's connected to the very fabric that defines our society.

On the brighter side, AI and all the technologies that get sucked into its orbit are clearly getting better, creating new business value and driving better customer experiences. At its recent CX17 customer and partner event, for example, Genesys introduced us to Kate, a "personified AI ecosystem" that blends AI-enabled automation with a human touch for a better customer experience. And Cisco told attendees of a recent customer care event about the "magical experiences" it is delivering through emerging capabilities like conversational UI and machine learning-based self service. This may sound a bit dreamy, but I think Cisco -- and others -- are on the right track by focusing on conversation-based engagement that personalizes the experience, as opposed to the impersonal IVR path, which provides zero context for enabling agents to understand what a customer really needs.

2. Redefine the CX

Another hot topic -- customer experience, or CX -- ties closely to AI, especially with so many AI-related initiatives being focused on the contact center. At this point, the customer journey isn't news, but most businesses have a long way to go to map out their journeys effectively. At the events I recently attended, all the vendors talked about how they're approaching this problem, with the objective being to enable contact centers to deliver great customer experiences. (While I didn't attend Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference, the CX topic came up there too, with news of the Business Chat offering, as my UC Strategies colleague, Michael Finneran, noted in his recent review of that event.)

There's nothing wrong with that... but we know it's harder to do than it looks. That said, over the past few weeks I've seen -- and spoken about -- encouraging progress, especially around AI and the growing use of chat bots to automate service. Of course, trying to serve the corporate mantra of cost reduction while providing CX that's personalized and makes customers feel valued is a fine line to straddle.

The takeaway I want to share is that the CX message is now going beyond vendors. For No Jitter readers with contact center responsibilities, the connections between AI and improving CX should be self-evident. I'm also hearing a broader focus on how service providers themselves need to evolve and up their games on this front. They may be doing a good job in their contact centers -- where the customer problems are -- but the messaging is also about delivering a better CX for their everyday offerings. In other words, they need to make the experience of consuming their services so good that these problems don't arise so much in the first place.

I'd say that's a good business philosophy, one around which I heard both large and small service providers talk the talk. How well they walk the walk may be another story, but they certainly seem to get it, especially in terms of transforming into providers of digital services rather than purveyors of static offerings like Internet access, TV, wireless, home security, etc. Hearing service provider CIOs talk about being application-centric, recognizing the need to drive innovation and achieve faster time to market to keep customers happy was great. p>

3. Digital transformation paradox

The above CX takeaways segue nicely to this theme, which one could argue is even bigger than AI right now. Let's just agree that they're both big, and need to be followed closely. While we all know that digital transformation is happening in every sector of the economy, I'm seeing a paradox emerging.

On the positive side, we heard at the May NEC Advantage event that digital transformation is very much happening here and now. The main reason is the rapid pace of digitization, and NEC cited that 90% of all existing digital data has been created in the last two years.

As astounding a ramp up as that is, it's only going to accelerate as IoT expands connectivity by an order of magnitude via machines and devices now becoming Web-enabled. We also heard from NEC that 67% of the buyer's journey is now digital, and it's not hard to imagine how much better CX will become as that level gets closer to 100%. Exciting possibilities lay ahead, for sure.

Conversely -- there's always a flip side with analysts -- the man vs. machine factor comes into play again here. Big changes always take longer than expected, as discussed widely at the events. Just look at VoIP; this is a radical technology with a 20-plus year track record, yet last I checked, TDM still holds about half of the PBX market. A more poignant example is the incandescent lightbulb, 118 years passed from its inception to the point at which Thomas Edison perfected it, as a speaker at the Canadian Telecom Summit noted.

Even once breakthroughs are perfected, success is not guaranteed -- and no matter how innovative digital transformation becomes, mass adoption generally takes a long time. Currently, sliding customer satisfaction ratings are in part due to the simple fact that consumers are adopting technology faster than enterprises can. Big organizations change slowly, and we're at a point now where technology is evolving faster than our ability to embrace it. Eventually, businesses will catch up, and that's when they'll become digitally transformed. But how long that takes is anybody's guess.