Field Service Technology Landscape: From Bots to Augmented Reality
This is not meant to be a “Pokémon Go” for business piece. Given the great success of Pokémon Go as an Augmented Reality game there are plenty of articles that tout how Pokémon will usher the next wave of AR into the enterprise. I think it will create a greater level of familiarity with the concept of AR, and the concept of gamification, which in turn will impact the use of these technologies in the enterprise. In my opinion, the two most interesting articles on the phenomenon to date are:
- 40% of Adults Who Have Downloaded Pokémon Go are 25 or Older (Source: Vox) – The younger generations are surely getting tied familiar with AR, but so are those aged 25 and above.
- It Takes 20 Years to Make an Overnight Success (Source: Reddit) – A great list of all the steps John Hanke took to reach this moment.
In thinking about the landscape of technologies that can be extremely impactful in the field of field service, I wanted to isolate the tools that will actually be used by field service agents. In this, I will stay away from the broader discussion on the Internet of Things or Big Data, as I factor these to be more of the behind-the-scenes tools that enable better field service performance.
Field service agents, as a group, aren’t necessarily pro-technology or anti-technology. They like technology when it helps remove obstacles and allows them to get work done. In areas where technology serves to become the obstacle it was designed to eliminate, field service agents become quite anti-technology. In addition, more seasoned field service agents have a lower tolerance for technology’s flaws. In understanding where technology can have the most immediate impact on field service performance its useful to look at the barriers that come in the way of field service agents getting their work done.
It’s quite evident that solutions that eliminate or reduce non-productive tasks, and those that simplify the search for information are ones that can have the most significant impact. In looking into the crystal ball, here are a few tools that might come into consideration over the coming years (Note: These aren’t listed in order of impact, they are intended to build on one another).
Both Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp have crossed the 1b user mark. Enterprise messaging and collaboration platforms like Slack and HipChat boast millions of daily users. The general trend is for employees to move away from email to messaging for communication and collaboration. In customer support, a number of organizations are evaluating the use of messaging to engage with and support their customers. This goes beyond the basic notification and rebooking services available via SMS. In field service, messaging can be quite useful especially in one-to-one communication between field agents or between dispatchers and field workers, and one-to-many announcements from one person to a group of field service agents. Messaging is quicker, simpler, and more mobile-friendly when compared to email. Messages can also be tagged and linked to specific accounts or product areas in order to allow for appropriate archiving. I also believe that messaging can play an essential role in creating a sense of community among dispersed field service agents, which is vital for employee morale, employee retention, and employee well being. While it is true to assume that messaging is a demographic play for a younger workforce, research from the Pew Research Center finds that older demographics are also becoming more familiar with the use of popular messaging apps.
Bots and Virtual Assistants
The messaging section above focuses on human-to-human communication and collaboration. We are still in the early days of this. Yet, we could also extend queries and messages to bots for customer service. The development of bots for human interaction was a big theme for developer conferences hosted by Facebook and Microsoft in 2016. Queries to bots could originate from anyone. A field service agent could submit a query via messaging to a bot in the back-end especially around the search for information. As the bot becomes more intelligent based on the mass history of queries and knowledge, the results returned could be quite powerful in solving one of the major challenges for field service agents.
Taking the Bot idea one step further is to think about a system where field service agents don’t have to create a new query tied to a field service issue. A system on the back-end could factor in location, time, and other parameters to automatically push information and notifications to that field service agent. Currently, virtual assistants like Google Now tell us when we need to leave for work in order to beat the traffic. Field service assistants could help agents beat traffic, rebook appointments, communicate with customers, and also pull up necessary information, given the context in which the field service agent is working.
Voice and Natural Language Processing
The biggest issue with virtual assistants (Siri, Cortana etc.) is that they are poor at processing and understanding voice commands. Natural Language Processing has come a long way and these assistants will only get better with future updates. Most users of Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant, are quite positive on its language processing capabilities. In field service, voice queries directed at a virtual assistant can be extremely useful in assisting field service agents search for relevant information, proceed to the next step of a service workflow, and much more. This can become even more valuable in hands-free work environments, such as in the field service van or on top of utility pole. As NLP improves, there will be the need to factor in background noise and distractions to truly make voice computing an effective tool for field service work. (Note: Elon Musk received a lot of press for a recent interview when he talked about humanity currently living in a simulation. What didn’t receive as much press is his talk about the input-output constraint. While his neural lace proposal is perhaps too advanced for this discussion, his point regarding the limited output capacity is extremely well made. It’s a worthy listen)
Video Collaboration to Augmented Reality
A lot of things get bucketed into augmented reality. The way I look at it, there are three stages of remote collaboration that build up to augmented realty
Stage 1: Two-way video collaboration – Field agent connects with back-end expert to show him/her what is being seen. The expert provides vocal commands.
Stage 2: Remote assistance – Similar to above, but expert can make gestures and more to assist field agent.
Stage 3: Augmented procedures – Instead of a remote expert providing guidance, service procedures are augmented on a field service agent’s screen to support resolution.
Stage 4: Augmented information – The first few three stages are very procedural. Stage 4 highlights how field service agents could view real-time asset performance, dashboards, and procedures, just by pointing their mobile device or by looking at the asset to be serviced.
The major challenge with augmented reality, as in the case of the tools above, is that it generally requires connectivity to work. The field service agents that need this information the most are likely to be those that work in extremely remote environments where connectivity is poor. Some of this can be solved by loading information on the mobile device, as is often done with knowledge articles, but that will not enable Stages 1,2, and 4 above.
Virtual Reality also presents an interesting solution for the field service enterprise. Based on early testing (see picture) and interviews, the VR experience is still clunky. That said, given the advancements that have already been made over the previous years and the speed at which future advancements are coming, the technology will not be a barrier. Organizations that are evaluating VR for their field service teams are doing so with an eye on training environments. With the aid of VR, technicians could work collaboratively on a virtual piece of equipment or in a virtual environment. VR would also enable a better collaboration between service and product design in ensuring that designed products consider the perspective of serviceability and new services prior to actual manufacture.
That’s the list. Once again, each one of these technology areas builds on the previous. The list also takes in the perspective of a field worker actively seeking information and assistance in his or her day-to-day tasks. That’s my get out of jail free card in not mentioning 3D printing and other tools that can also be useful.
As mentioned earlier, our research has found that most field service agents are open to new technology if it improves their day-to-day and eliminates major hurdles. This simple statement doesn’t look to minimize the role of change management. That said, newer service workers are coming in with a greater familiarity of these technologies thanks to the likes of Pokémon Go, Alexa, and more. These newer workers might even come in with the expectation of these tools being part of their day-to-day lives.