At the official rollout of bot platforms for Facebook and Microsoft last month, much was made of bots with the ability to get consumers pizza or flowers, but enterprise software maker Unit4 is running in a different direction.
“There are a lot of chatbots in the consumer space, but at the end of the day, you can buy a cup of coffee on a mobile app. It’s not that difficult,” Claus Jepsen, chief architect of the Unit4 bot Wanda, told VentureBeat in an interview. But in enterprise, “you can actually have enormous new savings.”
Born three months ago, Wanda can now fill in time sheets, make purchases, and interact with Office 365 calendar and Outlook email applications. She’s still growing — she doesn’t even have a face or logo yet — but ultimately, Unit4 wants Wanda to integrate applications and bots, allowing you to use natural language to handle all your business needs on Skype, Slack, WeChat, and other popular chat apps. Unit4 specializes in enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, which takes care of things like logistics, accounting, manufacturing supply chain management, and business-to-business sales.
“When you look at an ERP application, maybe you have 2,000 different streams and forms and venues, and you have fees, and it’s just incomprehensibly complex to deal with for end users,” Jepsen said. “Wanda is special because she is the first ERP digital assistant that integrates with all the back office processes.”
The company was purchased by Advent International for $1.6 billion in 2014. Prior to the acquisition, Unit4 reported annual revenues of $550 million for 2014. Following recent growth in North America, Unit4 hopes Wanda helps them gain ground in the U.S. and China on competition like Oracle and Sage in the $27 billion ERP software industry.
Wanda is part of a group of companies who want to use bots to reshape business operations and the way people interact with their job or employer. Kore, like Wanda, works with several other bots and with ERP software giant SAP Systems. MZ made a bot that runs public transportation for a New Zealand town and wants to make bots part of the future of government and business. Workato and Amy help users with workflow, customer service, and calendars.
“The first one that gets this right, is really making strides towards that, is going to do great,” Jepsen said.
Speaking at their own respective developer conferences last month in San Francisco, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella were on fire for bots.
Nadella said his company is entering the age of conversations as a platform.
“It’s about taking the power of human language and applying it more pervasively to all of our computing. That means we need to infuse into computers and computing intelligence about us and our context,” Nadella said. “And by doing so, we think this can have as profound an impact as previous platform shifts have had, whether it be GUI, whether it be the Web or touch on mobile.”
The ability to communicate in natural language in business may be helpful for administrators and bureaucrats who keep operations running smoothly at businesses, governments, and large organizations.
It may also be valuable for employees for whom erroneous tasks are a source of frustration and time-suck. Less time spent on menial tasks means more time spent doing anything else of value.
“It’s there, but you don’t have to deal with it, so you can focus on your customers, and you don’t have to do the mechanical task of entering data into a system. That’s the mission,” Jepsen said.
Wanda gets its language-processing tech from Microsoft’s Bot Framework. Like Microsoft’s bet on bots, Unit4’s creation of Wanda is not just the next iteration of a single product, but a sea change for an entire company. People who chat with Wanda will be able to chat with other bots and all Unit4 software that follows the many moving parts of a business.
Wanda made her debut at a Unit4 conference last month, and before she becomes available to the public in early 2017, additional functionality will be added. Ideas being considered include the ability to handle HR matters, employee onboarding, and annual reviews.
As she gets smarter, Wanda will recommend actions based on patterns or previous best results, from the creation of a travel itinerary to the best time to restock supplies. Ultimately, she wants to predict and automate routine business functions.
“You can literally automate any of these casual use cases there. It’s just, you know, how far do we want to go. Anything can be automated,” Jepsen said.