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No I in teams: How chatbots enhance business agility

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya)

Consumer familiarity with chatbots has grown significantly in recent years. Communication tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have become lifelines for businesses as they navigate the ‘new normal’, with an increasingly remote workforce and far-reaching network requirements.

The recent global lockdown has seen chatbot technology play an important role in the effort against Covid-19. Governments and healthcare organisations across the world have been employing chatbot technology to cope with the increased public demand for information, such as the number of cases in a specific area, symptom self-checkers and test locations and availability.  The Italian Ministry of Health, for example, has employed a chatbot created by Paginemediche which supports the health emergency efforts by providing an online triage in infection diagnostics. Meanwhile, in the US, Microsoft collaborated with the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) to develop an automated chatbot called Clara, which can educate people about the underlying symptoms of Covid-19.

The popularity of chatbots, and the breadth of situations in which they are deployed, is down to their effectiveness. According to a study by Capgemini, 62 per cent of consumers said they were satisfied with the chatbots they found on company websites, and 74 per cent said that conversational assistants were a key driver behind customer engagement strategies. The analyst Juniper estimated that in some business sectors, chatbots can deliver average time savings of around four minutes per enquiry. Chatbots, far from being an impersonal and ineffective substitute for human-to-human interaction, can play a valuable role in streamlining communication channels and query responses, freeing up human resource to focus on more complex and personal forms of engagement.

So imagine how useful it would be if the benefits of chatbots could be applied to enterprise IT environments, to accelerate and automate information-sharing across areas of the business where data has traditionally been siloed and hard to gain access to – even though sharing that information would benefit the organisation. Imagine, in other words, the possibilities for deploying chatbots internally as opposed to purely in customer-facing scenarios.

The problems of data siloing

One particularly powerful use case for chatbots internally is in dealing with the data siloing that often happens with IT and network security teams, and with business application owners.

Consider, for example, an application owner seeking an answer to the simple question “Is network traffic currently allowed from this specific server to this second server?” Being able to answer such a question quickly and accurately is critical for a truly agile approach to network security, particularly as organisations’ network infrastructures grow increasingly complex and dynamic – but actually doing so can be complicated if the enterprise does not have a Network Security Management (NSM) solution. In such a scenario, the application owner will likely have to ask several different stakeholders and use multiple firewall and device management consoles.

Even if the organisation does use an NSM solution in place, the application owner might not get an immediate answer to their question. They might have to access the NSM system themselves – which depends, of course, on their having particular skills and knowledge in using it – or they might have to ask a member of the IT or security team to access it for them. In turn, this might interrupt more urgent security-related tasks. The all-too-common upshot is that the application owner is kept waiting and what could have been a quick and straightforward answer, enabling them to carry on with their core tasks rapidly, takes unnecessary time.

Network and security ChatOps

So, imagine if it was possible to grant non-technical staff access to expert security knowledge about the enterprise network – such as the status of a business application’s connectivity, which firewalls protect that application, or whether traffic is being allowed to certain servers – without needing to have expertise in using security management tools, or distracting busy networking or security staff. Imagine, in other words, having secure access to network security information – but crucially, in an intuitive, non-technical way, which speaks to staff with a broad range of different skillsets.

A chatbot can make this a reality across the organisation, enabling users outside the network and security teams – such as application owners, developers or other roles who may not have access to, or permissions, to use an NSM system – to obtain the answers they need about network and application flows. Just as with consumer-facing chatbots on, say, retail and leisure websites, such chatbots are designed to process spoken or typed inputs, ascertain the question being asked, find the answer and present it in a clear format, easily interpretable by the skill and experience level of the person asking the question. In turn, this breaks down siloes of information and democratises access to critical network and security data to non-specialist users, in non-technical language (based on access rights of course).

Non-technical users can interact with the chatbot in plain languages (not just English – but other common languages too) using a chat application such as Slack or Skype for Business, and ask questions such as “is there a connectivity problem with our payments application?” The chatbot then interrogates the NSM solution to find the answers, and relays them back to the user in seconds – giving them the information they need about network security and connectivity, without needing to interrupt the network security team.

  • How chatbots are redefining customer experiences

Accelerating business agility

Knowledge, as the old saying goes, is power. The more people from across your organisation are able to access and interpret information pertaining to network security, the more empowered they are to make decisions such as whether to deploy a new application or amend an existing one. Internal processes are automated. Decision-making is speeded up.

In turn, this accelerates business productivity and agility – but crucially, without negatively impacting on business security. In fact, application owners and developers are empowered to learn more about your organisation’s security posture, and to better understand how their own responsibilities fit into security as a whole.

Security should always operate as an enabler of business productivity, not an inhibitor. Chatbots can play an important role in making this happen.

Dania Ben Peretz, policy management, AlgoSec