“Help!”—It is a timeless call for assistance and support from denizens of every enterprise, large and small. Employees and consumers have relied on IT service desks for support for as long as such a thing as IT has existed. But now, with the move to hybrid and work-from-anywhere environments, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are challenged to deliver an adequate employee experience and technical support that dispersed team members need.
Cognitive Business News Executive Editor Loren Moss assembled an all star cast of experts featuring John Webbon and Vishal Brown from NTT Data, and Frank Casale, CRO of Choiceworx and founder of IRPA-AI (Institute for Robotics Process Automation & Artificial Intelligence) to discuss the ways digital labor will disrupt the ways IT support is delivered to the next generation dispersed workforce.
Cognitive Business News: Well, thank you guys for joining me. We wanted to talk about digital labor and some of the challenges that we have right now in the industry after all these years. The rate of development of new technology is increasing, but still there are a lot of challenges and frustrations. When we look at the digital workplace, we have been going through through COVID, that was very disruptive and forced a lot of companies to pay down a lot of the technological debt that they have. There were laggards that were maybe not moving so quickly when it came to either next generation workplaces or things like remote and hybrid work, but then also things like intelligent automation, whether that’s robotics process automation, things like that. So tell me if you guys would, why do you think that there’s still so much angst and pain when it comes to large companies playing catch up? Did the COVID situation help, or did that aggravate the situation?
John Webbon: Well, in my opinion, I feel like it was a bit of both, depending on how progressive the company was. Some, like you mentioned before, were forced to take care of that technical debt and really forced to focus on their user experience specifically because of productivity, and so you got a lot of of workers now working remotely. Some companies just were absolutely not prepared to have people accessing their systems remotely, and those workers obviously were not very productive at that time.
Some were well prepared for transitioning large workforces to remote, and then some, their focus became: OK, how can we increase the experience? How can we make this easier? So, I don’t know if there’s one solid answer though. We’ve got hundreds of customers and I’ve seen every scenario in between over the last two years. So, Vishal, I don’t know if you want to add some point of view to that for what you’ve seen.
Vishal Brown: Yes. I’ll add a couple points. I think—it’s interesting times as they say, right? I think we’ve had Pre-COVID, [companies] that transitioned to, let’s call it, hybrid work. Right? And the work from home, work from anywhere for that matter, and that was, that was a percentage of population. And I think some companies were on the bleeding edge of that, and others were laggards to your point.
I think there are a few things driving that. One is obviously there was a generational happening there in terms of what Gen-Z and millennials were looking for and, and the way they look for a balanced lifestyle when it comes to work life balance, right? And what they look for from an employer and a job. So that generational change in leadership and naturally looking at most organizations that are not in Silicon Valley, the age of that personal leader in that company is…they’re older, and so they’re not looking at the way you would work and what work means for that millennial, they’re looking at it in a different way.
For a millennial, work being an activity, not a destination, I don’t have to go to an office for work to happen, right? So, I think there’s that generational change, and I think as you kind of got into COVID and ironically, you’re seeing it in the housing market. Who’s really going after housing right now? It’s the millennials who are growing up and getting to that age where they’re acquiring houses, and likewise in the workforce, you’ll see them entering very senior leadership positions, not just management positions, but senior leadership positions where they’re able to make a generational impact on how and where we work.
So I think we’re dealing with some generational attitudes there about the leadership positions and how and where work should happen. I think that’s one side of the coin, the other side of that is there’s a cultural component of that, just where work should happen, regardless of the generation of the person, there’s a mindset of, “we should be in the office, I can’t see what you’re doing” kind of thing. So there’s also that cultural component and downstream impact to that. How you look at HR policy, hiring policy, space, scale, and how that may change depending on geography. Some of those things kind of have downstream impact the way you view where work should happen. So there are two of those things.
“I think you’ll see a lot more curation of the digital human when they interact with the service desk”-Vishal Brown
The third component I would say is also, there’s always a technology component that you just couldn’t work from home if you wanted to. As we know, as we kind of look at the pervasiveness of SaaS and cloud and the ability to work productively, and as a first class citizen, right? You work from home, you feel like you’re a second class citizen where you could work from home and be equal to or greater than someone in the office. I think the technology is now is there.
I mean, I’m in Hudson Valley, New York here, right up in the sticks, and I’m as good as someone working in the city, right? No difference, so I think those three factors are really changing. Pre-COVID we were really influencing what hybrid work would look like, and I think once COVID happened, it just put a rocket ship under that, forced us to rethink both at the generational level, what that meant. They’re forced to make that change at the leadership level. The cultural component that I mentioned, let’s rethink what that means about working from home, and it brought a reality to it, when you realize that technology is there, you can work from home. we proved it as people were able to work from home. So, I think those three factors kind of helped us rethink what it means, what hyper hybrid work is.
Frank Casale: I was reading something this morning. It just harkens back to the iPhone one, and I was wondering, “when did that actually happen, right?” So January, 2007. And if you think about, what was it like to own a mobile phone in 2006, and then what has it been like since 2007 to own a phone, think of all of us now with a smartphone in our hand, whether it’s an Apple phone or a Samsung or whatever you may have, and think of the advancements and think of how significant the change has been since then just by way of smartphones. Think of how you consumed a movie in 2006 or 2007 compared to now, right? I saw a sign recently: Netflix—somebody shared a photo of a Netflix sign in front of one of their buildings where they were just jokingly referring to the fact that they started out mailing people CDs, right? So, if you think of this shift from a flip phone to a smartphone from CD to streaming movies, streaming music, etcetera, and you think of how quickly, and just kind of like a different world right today versus 2006, 2007.
Well, let’s compare that to typical IT service desk or the experience of the typical end user who calls up and says: “my laptop isn’t working,” I would say most of the people I’m speaking with would tell you that the experience is not much different. So it just makes you wonder. So on one hand, it’s interesting for me to see how the consumer experience in the B2C space has really evolved much greater than the B2B space. I would’ve lost that bet. I wouldn’t think that the enterprise world with all that’s being bought and sold, would’ve advanced ahead of people selling stuff to college kids and, grandma and grandpa and, and the rest of us, right? So, that just gets back to your question as to, in spite of all this money that’s been spent, why is the phone still ringing? Why is there still so much consternation of frustration?
My simple answer is, as I see it is still very labor centric, so as much as the technology is there, it’s still very much there to supposedly support the knowledge worker, but the slowest moving part is the knowledge worker. I know you’ll have us get into digital labor a little bit later, but I think that is one of the reasons that, in spite of all the technology, it’s still more, I would say, passive than game changing.
As to the second part of your question on COVID, I think COVID has made things more complicated. However, the good news is it seems to have sparked a lot of activity where if people were on the fence about making more moves and making investments, this pushed people over the fence. I’m seeing a lot of that as well. I’m not sure what you’re seeing within the client base, I’m thinking that may have helped in some cases. Is that fair to say?
Cognitive Business News: I think so. But you were sitting here mentioning the difference between B2C and B2B. Obviously the demand dynamics are different, but if you can use these technologies to create and push demand, I think that there are some creative things that work more in the consumer sector than in the B2B sector. But it’s interesting. We look at this outage, we had an outage the other day with Facebook and WhatsApp, and Workplace, which is the Facebook work product, I think Instagram too, and it’s interesting because you look at IT support. I mean, even here we were wrestling yesterday with our internet provider because we were getting about a hundredth of the bandwidth that we needed and their failure was that their service desk was so bad we had to show up at the office and have a fit to get anything done!
But it’s interesting because it shows you the importance of that IT service. We know about it, it’s a given from the enterprise side, but it’s interesting because you look at how it affects things on the consumer facing side as well. But as everybody’s gone to remote work, I mean, I think all of us are working remotely! I think two of you are there in New York, one’s in Texas, I’m down here in South America, but if you’ve got a fiber connection, at least when the company does what it’s supposed to do, we can work from anywhere. We closed our office last year. I told everybody grab your computers and take them home, and that allowed me to move from the city out to the country because I didn’t have to commute to the office anymore. There was no office.
And like you said, Vishal, it’s like you go from being a second class citizen to there being no differential.
But how has the service desk had to evolve due to this rush to remote work? I know that some companies were already advanced, but a lot of companies were very resistant to a remote modality. When you look at things like support, you might have workers off who knows where, it’s not like a technician can just show up at one office. People are often now in different…all these countries are now coming out with digital nomad visas. So how is the service desk—security, of course is a concern. We’ve gone from BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) to BYON (Bring Your Own Network). And everybody’s connecting, who knows how and so how has the service desk had to evolve to keep up with that and to continue to deliver the service and reliability that companies need to function?
John Webbon: I’ll give my point of view on that. I think the big issue becomes what I would call like, your average handle time for your agents. We went from supporting a device to supporting a home network and all the things in between. So there’s so many variables now that weren’t present before. So much more troubleshooting that has desk agents start performing almost a Level Two function. And, you know, the way the industry was going, we were reducing the technical support that a service desk would provide previously, and it was more of a log and route type situation, or we would rely on automation tools for self-service password reset and other technologies to solve a lot of things.
But now we’ve got this influx of new issues that have popped up, and so really for us, what that involves is starting to retool our field services organization, to be more of a 1.5 service desk that can provide over the phone, more advanced technicalities that our previous ones could not, and so we’re seeing a huge shift there. But certainly, it’s been quite an interesting thing to see. And at the beginning of COVID, when you saw droves of people heading to work remotely who had never worked remote before, we saw a massive uptake in some cases.
Frank Casale: And if I could play off of that, Loren, you think about it, working at home, it’s great. When it works, it’s great, and then when you have issues, it’s a mess, right? So now you’re no longer in the building. And as much as you could argue a phone call is a phone call, but it still amazes me how many people still prefer or desire desk side [support]. Deskside, not only is expensive, but it’s doable if somebody’s in the building or they’re in the city. What do you do when you have hundreds or thousands of people just dispersed throughout the country or around the world? What we’re seeing is sort of forcing people to kind of revisit how they work currently. So, this concept of the agent, t if they get frustrated or stuck, just dispatching someone in field service to get over there, to do that, which is obviously very expensive.
We’re seeing companies less and less inclined to do this. So, on the one hand, when it works, it’s great. The other hand, the other thing we’re seeing, and I’m sure Vishal and John, their team has to wrestle with this all day long, the average person at home, everybody can get access to the network, but they don’t have an industrial strength network at home.
“This leapfrog innovation play is an AI fueled, PASD (Proactive Autonomous Service Desk) This will be a game changer for the end user, the service desk owner and anyone providing digital workplace services and support.”-Frank Casale
So, you have some basic consumer brand thing, and you’re working through your local cable provider. And while you’re attempting to kick off a webinar, two of your kids are doing video games and everything slows down, right? So, it’s forcing everybody to revisit even who’s responsible supporting what. I even spoke to somebody a couple of days back where they were saying they’re starting to create—I don’t want to say demand—but they’re starting to get the word out to those that work at home as to minimum requirements of what they need to have at home. Then there are questions as to who pays for that, right? But if you have let’s say, low bandwidth or low throughput, what do you need to do? Not only to work remotely, but in scenarios, if you look at where we are now, this is also very video-centric, right? So think of the impact of on bandwidth and throughput and things, along those lines. As you think about the help desk, there’s a certain level of increased demand, but also if you think about now field service or just the traditional truck role, you know that dog don’t hunt anymore when you have thousands of people working at home.
Cognitive Business News: Right, and this is the case everywhere, where there’s a level of support given to enterprise customers and a level of support given to home customers. As I said, we had our internet, it was a weird situation where normally it’s like 300 megabits a second, but it went down to like, one megabit per second. And I’m like, “how does that happen?” It either breaks or it doesn’t break, right? But we couldn’t get anybody on the phone, and so I’m sitting here trying to do work and manage a team, and the consumer internet provider just isn’t giving us the same level of support that I got when I had the office, when we had had a separate number that we called.
We had the business support team and things like that. I think that a lot of that is on the telecoms because they have to realize, maybe they come up with a professional plan where you get priority service now with everybody working from home. But one of the things I wanted to ask since we have people from NTT Data here on the call is, is how does NTT leverage service data to do predictive and prescriptive modeling? I know that you guys have a tool called or a platform called Nucleus. That’s part of your offering. And if you could briefly describe what that is and how that works.
Vishal Brown: To your point, when it comes to the service desk, all this starts with data, right? Be at the desk where we’re looking at, the incidents coming in, who’s calling, where are they calling from, what is breaking, right? And keep in mind, by the time it hits the desk, they’re reaching out via email, phone, chat, whatever channel they’re using, that’s reactive in nature. The problem already happened, right? So you kind of have a line aside into the incidents, who’s experiencing them, etcetera, and you get into additional service, performance ticketing, performance data, like how faster resolving them takes, to handling time, all those thing.
I think that’s one dataset we look at and harness, so that’s the reactive side, but to the point you’re raising, we can do predictive modeling about understanding those tickets, and understanding ticket volumes, about how do we need to staff our help desk. Where are the opportunities to automate some of these tasks that you don’t need a L1 or L2 tech to get involved, we can proactively remediate those issues before getting a human involved. So that whole digital staff, digital human experience, but that’s still reactive in the sense that the problem happened, and we are automating how we fix it from a predictive perspective.
But there are also ways that we’re leveraging to proactively solve that issue, where before the user realizes something is wrong, we’re looking at his compute, we’re looking at the application performance and realizing he’s taxing his compute, right? Or his network is fluctuating. We should be doing something about that or getting ahead of it. Looking at the employee experience in terms of frustration, it could be at the ticket level, because they’re opening one or something is happening with the experience overall and reducing their productivity. But you’re being proactive about that before they actually get to the desk.
My point in all that, be it looking at it from a proactive perspective and engaging that user to remediating that issue or helping them before it becomes an issue and opening a ticket, or reactively, they did reach out to the desk. Let’s reduce the time to resolution. The point is there’s a lot of data there that we’re harnessing and that’s where the predictive and prescriptive modeling really empowers us to really increase the employee experience, reduce that friction that they have. I think that that’s where we’re going, where we’re leveraging things like conversational AI to reach out and engage and resolve before it gets to the point where there are issues and it becomes really important, like you mentioned. How are, how we improving the service desk, that’s the previous question, it’s where we’re getting ahead of that, and that way as employees feel disconnected from the enterprise and they don’t have that level of intimacy with the enterprise, and could be disengagement with the enterprise. How do we increase that through the service desk, leveraging things like predictive analytics.
That’s the power of Nucleus. That’s what we’re doing with Nucleus.
Frank Casale: I think it’s important, this concept of, traditionally as we think about staffing L1, staffing L2, etcetera you know, the breakthrough as we see it is in proactive, autonomous remediation. And then if you link predictive into that, then I see that as the game changer, that’s what we’re seeing. Now, if you apply that to a traditional model, you would say: “OK we know every time there’s a vacation period, here’s what happens around the summer. Let’s be prepared.” Every time there’s an event, all of our salespeople are traveling and they’re staying in hotels and at airports, and then in the traditional model you would staff up then, so now you’re back to this labor model, slowest moving part, OK?
You go proactive and you go autonomous, then you get to respond to that data in a much more agile way, right? Your business is not flipped upside down. So that is one of the keys. I think the other aspect of this is leveraging this data where if you have the right technology, you’ll have more data than you’ve ever had before. If you have the right technology at the end point, you have the right technology in the cloud. There’s less guesswork. It amazes me to this day, how many organizations and in many cases, maybe even would-be customers of NTT; they don’t really have any good clean data. It’s a lot of guesswork. I mean, it’s just kind of bizarre.
Maybe one of the dirty little secrets of this industry is how little…I would say how poor the quality of the data is. Then again, you think about it, it’s something that happens digitally and then there’s a person, now we’re back to analog, who has to somehow not only respond, but also maybe type in some notes, right? So depending on the person, depending on the turnover, depending on the nature of the company, how is that handled? So you’re going from digital to analog, to digital, to analog, and as long as that human is in the loop, things will be expensive. They will be moving slow. It’ll be tougher to scale up or down.
I envision a time in the very near future: two, three years, where you really begin to see aggressive erosion, if you will, or elimination of labor-centric, L1 and L2, right? And you have organizations like NTT who are on the front end of this, it’s saying let’s leverage intelligent, adaptive automation to go and to end as much as we can on L1, L2 and better for the customers. And better for the engineers too, engineers don’t want to be messing around with silly things because Frank keeps forgetting his password, right? They want to be doing the cool stuff. They don’t want to be on there with us dumb end-users all day doing silly stuff.
So you get better morale with your team. If you’re NTT, it’s my assumption, John or Vishal could validate that or not. You have happier end users, and from a business standpoint, you have a business that’s a lot more scalable. Your customer has a service that could scale up, down, left and right. Because you’re not picking up the phone calling and it’s the holidays, and now you’re waiting… Waiting on a phone is something that soon our kids or grandkids will look back and laugh that we were calling on the phone and waiting. If you call your bank, if you call your insurance company or you call your help desk, you’re waiting, right? That is a labor centric construct, right? If you type iPhone into Google, you don’t wait, right? It’s machine to machine, that’s the difference. So, I think the machine to machine is ultimately where it’s going and that’s where things get better for, for everyone as I see it.
Cognitive Business News: I think you’re right about that, and I think that that whole concept of digital labor and the flexibility it provides when it comes to not replacing employees, but the role that the human does in the organization and in the intelligence chain changes, where you go from using the judgment that humans are best at, but then using the procedural things that digital labor can do, and even with artificial intelligence now, even some of the judgment we’re seeing, that those roles—it frees up humans so that the role shifts and the technology is a tool.
I want to be mindful of your time. Everybody’s been great. Last question, I want to ask how will the service desk look different in five years? What’s the service desk of the future look like? We’ve talked about innovations and some of the cool things we can do now using artificial intelligence. But if we look at what are we not yet able to do, maybe some things that are cooking in the oven, but what, what do you guys see that’s going to be different and better or maybe sometimes different isn’t better, but how do you see things evolving and what are things going to look like in five years that maybe will be different compared to today?
John Webbon: Well, being on the delivery side, I’m more focused on the back end. I think the predelivery of information to whomever is on the other end receiving the call, whether it be a virtual agent or an actual live agent is going to vastly improve. You know, with all of the tool sets out there that are employed, our Nucleus platform and other things, that info’s going to be automatically there. We’ll have predictive information about why someone is probably calling almost instantly. Obviously they’ve got a pending drive failure or slowness on an application or network latency issues or whatever, that’s going to already be there. So when that person calls that system, very likely automated, he or she will automatically see that, look at that and then ask some upfront questions so they can basically resolve that issue more quickly. Vishal, did you have a thought on that as well?
“At the beginning of COVID, when you saw droves of people heading to work remotely who had never worked remote before, we saw a massive uptake in some cases.”-John Webbon
Vishal Brown: Yes, I feel like there are a couple threads, when we look five years out, as the kind of the hybrid work model becomes more pervasive, and I think it’s not just working from home, but working from literally anywhere, and that has broader implications about where we live, right? And where work happens. I think you’re going to see a truly distributed workforce and tapping into GOs for, for employees and really about talent, not location. So once you start seeing that, that would mean to me, that the ability for the enterprise to still have engagement with that employee becomes really important, but also more so, the kind of the intimacy back to the corporate culture, so what, where, what do I mean by that? I think you’ll see a lot more curation of the digital human when they interact with the service desk, you’ll start seeing things like one of the areas where we’re exploring is the metaverse, where you get into these ways, you have your own avatar. And when you show up to the service desk, even though it’s a virtual agent, it’s more personified, it’s taken on an avatar or character!
So that way, you feel like you’re interacting with a human, but it’s not. So that really digitizing of the human and the interaction and making it curated based on the analytics you’ve connected that persona of that person, the interaction will be a little more intimate. I feel like you’ll see some of that happening in the next few years, where when I call the desk, it knows it’s me. It knows my application. It knows my wants and needs. It knows my work. It knows my colleagues and how we work. “Hey, Vishal, I see you’re working on this today. How can I help you?” That’s a different level of intimacy that we don’t have at the service desk today, be it digital or the actual human, right? I think you’ll see a lot of that as you move forward.
Cognitive Business News: I think that you know, there are also tools out there when we look at digital labor, we look at things like RPA, and then there are tools out there like Choiceworx that can go and fix things proactively without: “OK, it’s broken, go get somebody to come and get involved,” but it’s like almost self-healing. It’s like the system has the intelligence with these components to know that it’s broken and to fix itself. And I think that that concept will expand into kind of an autonomous self-healing system where that big Facebook outage, where their BGP (border gateway protocol) got all screwed up. Maybe there’s going to be the intelligence to go in there and say: “OK, this is screwed up, rather than having engineers running around and go: “oh, what do we do?” Then the system has the intelligence to go in there and fix it or roll things back.
And I think that this is part of…I’m no programmer or developer, but I think that a lot of this is aligned with the DevOps philosophy, right? Where you can not only deploy software faster, but do so in a much more fault-tolerant way, where you roll out the system, this big upgrade, and now all these whole new bugs come out that weren’t there before, and I think that—and a lot of us forget, or we are too young to remember how things were back in the nineties with the enterprise. So, you know, you get this big rollout and everything stops working, and that was fairly common with big on enterprise systems, and people wouldn’t upgrade their systems just because: “OK, we got this old system and it finally works! We’re not going to upgrade because it works!”
If you guys remember that and, and to some degree, I think it is still out there, but I want to thank you guys for your time. Is there anything that you wanted to mention, or maybe a point that you wanted to make that I forgot or neglected to touch upon?
Frank Casale: I see a mostly laborless scenario where: many key issues are resolved before a user is even aware they exist, all level 1 and level 2 issues are identified and resolved with zero human intervention, scripts are passé – part of the problem not the solution, and the typical end user experience goes from frustration to elation
This leapfrog innovation play is an AI fueled, PASD (Proactive Autonomous Service Desk) This will be a game changer for the end user, the service desk owner and anyone providing digital workplace services and support.
Cognitive Business News: OK. Have a great, great weekend, everyone!