Businesses prepare for advent of ‘virtual employees’ and ‘bot advisors’

Clearly, businesses will have to address employee concerns that such technologies might present a threat and ensure that education is in place to make sure they understand that AI will support them in their various roles.

The digital workplace is no longer made up of just managers and those managed, co-workers collaborating with one another on projects, and employees interacting with customers and partners.

It is increasingly populated by ‘virtual employees’ who do not exist in a physical sense, but nonetheless play an important role in the organisation, reports Dimension Data in its Digital Workplace Report: Transforming Your Business.

The report finds artificial intelligence technology is still in its infancy but has sufficiently advanced to be working its way into companies in the form of virtual assistants and, in certain industries such as banking, virtual tellers and virtual advisors.

The technology is manifested as bots embedded into specific applications, virtual assistants drawing on AI engines and machine learning technology to answer basic queries.

More common in consumer devices (such as Amazon Echo) and mobile apps (such as Apple Siri), AI-driven virtual assistants are helping businesses reduce costs by automating basic tasks that would otherwise require people to perform.

"Clearly, businesses will have to address employee concerns that such technologies might present a threat and ensure that education is in place to make sure they understand that AI will support them in their various roles," the report states.

Dimension Data says it interviewed 800 organisations in 15 countries on five continents. There were no New Zealand respondents but the trends outlined in the survey apply to many local organisations, the company says in a statement.

The report notes digital transformation is not just about adopting the technologies of the past: 62 per cent of research participants expect to have technology such as virtual advisors in their organisations within the next two years. In addition, 58 per cent expect to start actively investing in technology that powers virtual advisors in the next two years.

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“It’s no longer enough to simply implement these technologies,” says Kane Steele, end-user computing – GM, Dimension Data. “Organisations have grown their use of analytics to understand how these technologies impact their business performance: 64 per cent use analytics to improve their customer services, and 58 per cent use analytics to benchmark their workplace technologies.”

Meanwhile, around 30 per cent of organisations say they’re far along in their digital transformation initiatives and are already reaping the benefits, while others are still in the early stages of developing a plan.

The report also finds the workplace is rapidly changing, as “work is no longer somewhere you go, but something you do.”

Employees looking for a better work-life balance have driven flexible working. Thus, the need to support flexible workstyles is going to affect most businesses, says Dimension Data.

The survey finds a dramatic rise in occasional or full-time homeworking. Twenty-one per cent of organisations say that more than a third of their employees work from home at least some of the time now.

Fifty-nine per cent say that they anticipate more than a third of their employees working from home some of the time within two years.

Public sector organisations are the least enthusiastic embracers of homeworking, with media companies being the most open to homeworking and other flexible workstyles.

The number of permanent homeworkers is also growing, according to the report.

Currently, 40 per cent of enterprises support permanent homeworkers, though for most of these, this means supporting a only few employees. But in two years, more than half, 56 per cent, of enterprises expect to be supporting permanent homeworkers, and for many this represents a substantial proportion of the workforce, not just a handful.

There is a continuing trend for open offices which often have unassigned seating arrangements, open plan design, and informal meeting areas. Thirty-eight percent of enterprises say that at least a third of employees work in an open office now, and 46 per cent expect this to be the case within two years.

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Jonathan Glenister, Dimension Data New Zealand Strategic solutions manager, says flexible workstyles are also on the rise locally.

“The rising cost of real estate in New Zealand means space optimisation is key – adding to the push for flexible and mobility.”

The global report found that most organisations, even large ones, do not have a comprehensive digital workplace strategy.

“Here in New Zealand, we are seeing amongst our large corporate clients and local councils, they are thinking about their digital strategy or know they need to be.”

While it may not be comprehensive, it’s on the agenda – often driven by office moves or organisational change, he says.

“This awareness of the need for digital transformation speaks to the more nimble nature of New Zealand organisations, especially with our high proportion of SMEs.”

Traditional collaboration technology still has considerable value despite the rise of new collaboration tools, he adds. “We are seeing a continued uptake of Skype and Office 365 among both our government and commercial clients.”

In New Zealand, a number of our clients are very focused on exploring and experimenting with emerging technology, he adds.

“The work we are doing with a national airline around the HoloLens is really focused on the future and how it can push the boundaries. We are also working with other clients to look at how they can implement new technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and chatbots. The future of technology is not really so far away.”

Many of these clients who are focused on digital transformation are doing so to attract and retain the best talent. “They understand that digital natives expect a digital workplace.”

The is a focus on decreasing costs, while increasing customer satisfaction. “In New Zealand, we are seeing a high level of focus on customer and staff satisfaction. Our clients are interested in both creating a good place to work, and measuring customer and staff satisfaction.”

Like their global counterparts, the most innovative Kiwi companies are those which have a digital focused leadership team.

“When it comes to companies in New Zealand, it’s about what is right for its workplace and teams. Organisations should aim to be agile but also listen to its users and adjust if something is not working,” says Glenister.

"Organisations should aim to be agile but also listen to its users and adjust if something is not working."

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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