IBM lined up dozens of executives from well-known corporations to record videos for its Think 2021 virtual conference this week, with the goal of convincing attendees to adopt artificial intelligence tech or else be doomed to continue scheduling meetings, answering emails and talking to every customer.
IBM Watson Orchestrate is the latest technology from major vendors in recent years that promises to save employees from such highly repetitive job responsibilities. However, the new capabilities out of IBM Research do use actual AI -- not just the AI buzzword. IBM appears to have built a system that industry experts say could actually increase productivity across sales, human resources, operations and other areas of business.
Requiring no IT skills to use, end users can work with Watson Orchestrate using collaboration tools such as Slack and email, in natural language. It connects to widely used business applications including Salesforce, SAP and Workday. In demonstrations at the Think conference, IBM showed how the AI engine selects and sequences pre-packaged skills necessary to perform a task. It connects apps, data and a user's history to quickly perform routine tasks, such as scheduling meetings or getting approvals, or complete higher-priority jobs like preparing proposals or business plans.
"We will finally be free from the tyranny of our jobs," said Mike Gilfix, vice president of product management for IBM Automation and chief product officer of Cloud Paks, during a session at the Think conference.
Watson Orchestrate gives people the data they need to do their work faster and automate components of work that they don't care to do, said Rob Thomas, senior vice president of IBM, in a session. AI, he said, frees up to 50% of people's time.
Time savings leads to cost savings, and those two business priorities are pushing companies like IBM to go all in with artificial intelligence. In fact, AI will be infused in every software and system IBM builds from here on out -- an imperative that became more urgent this past year, said IBM Chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna during his conference keynote.
Putting Watson to work
The ideal use of AI in business today is to take high-volume, highly repetitive tasks with well-defined rules and scale them through automation, said R "Ray" Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.
"For business processes in industries like finance, with well-defined regulations, it makes sense," he said.
AI for customer service is more difficult to do well, Wang said, but companies have found success by taking the time to train AI assistants to understand context.
"We will see a huge demand for AI for CX and for a lot of business processes that were outsourced to contact centers that are now in trouble [due to COVID]," Wang said.
Users who train Watson Assistant don't need developer skills, but they should have a strong understanding of process-based thinking and conversational AI design, according to a conference chat response from IBM associate partner Rob Dunlap.
Longtime IBM customer CVS Health recently tapped Watson Assistant to augment customer service. The pharmacy's digital team worked with IBM Global Services to launch "groundbreaking AI" through IBM Watson Assistant on IBM's public cloud, and built intelligent call agents to change how people interacted with CVS, said Karen Lynch, president and CEO of CVS Health, during the Think keynote.
The Watson AI call agents, developed and launched within four weeks, helped answer millions of inquiries about COVID tests, vaccines, symptoms, cost and more, freeing up human agents to handle complex requests while decreasing costs. Since launching in early January, CVS's virtual voice assistant has handled millions of calls.
"Embracing digital has dramatically changed how we think about the company," Lynch said, adding that AI technologies will be integrated into other areas of CVS Health.
Like CVS, many companies expect to increase their AI use this year. In ESG's 2021 IT Spending Priority Survey, 63% of respondents said they planned to increase spending in AI and machine learning technologies -- in line with top-level spending increases for cloud services and cybersecurity.
IBM demonstrated a highly effective, well-tuned view of Watson Orchestrate's capabilities and use cases across the enterprise during the Think conference, but companies should plan to start with simpler applications, said Mike Leone, a senior analyst at ESG.
"Organizations would be best served by starting small and learning with lower-risk, higher-value tasks," Leone said. "Once end users trust the software, they'll look to take what they've learned and utilize additional (and more robust) capabilities over time. The more the software is utilized, the more value end users will gain from it."
Trusting the automation to take over certain tasks will take time. IBM's Gilfix addressed the issue of trusting AI to make business decisions, saying IBM invests in explainable AI and works to train algorithms without bias to ensure users have faith in the systems.
Watson Orchestrate has the potential to empower end users to automate everyday work, Leone said.
"Knowing it's rooted in self-service, end users will get the guardrails they need to confidently explore and utilize the software to help increase productivity and do so with minimal effort," Leone said.
An IBM representative said "the company is working with multiple teams within IBM to deploy Watson Orchestrate for IBMers, including sales, services and HR, prior to it being released to external customers."
Watson Orchestrate is still in development, with early access coming in June as part of the IBM Automation Cloud Paks. Pricing will be finalized closer to the general availability release in late 2021. It will initially be made available as a SaaS offering, the company said.
ESG is a division of TechTarget.