Digital Workers vs. Chatbots vs. Bots: What’s the Difference?

6 min read

Explore the differences between these three types of automation and learn about when to use them in your organization.

Businesses are seeing more use of digital (robotic) workers, chatbots and bots as digital transformation continues to revolutionize the workplace. These automation technologies — which use artificial intelligence (AI) and its subsets, machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) — are making customer service available around the clock, removing tasks from employees’ workflows, speeding up processes, removing errors and otherwise reducing costs and increasing competitiveness.                                   

While the digital workers, chatbots and bots might sound like they are interchangeable, they operate differently and meet distinct needs. Here’s a closer look.

What is a digital worker?

A digital worker, sometimes defined as a category of software robots, is a non-human team member that’s trained to use intelligent automation technologies to automate multiple tasks in a set of sequences and meet a complete business need from beginning to end. An example might be processing invoices through an organization’s system by moving them from sales to finance to procurement for execution and delivery.

Also referred to as a virtual or digital employee, a digital worker uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform one or more routine and repetitive business processes — not just a single task as a bot does, but an entire process. A digital worker is intelligent enough to ask questions if it needs more information, and it can improve the employee experience by taking monotonous work off the table. It can also be trained to deal with exceptions to the rule and learn by doing. More advanced digital worker software has the ability to remember past interactions, so that when you switch it off, it doesn’t forget you or what you worked on before.

Forrester describes a type of digital worker automation as combining AI (such as conversational AI and robotic process automation (RPA)) to work alongside employees and “understand human intent, respond to questions and take action on the human's behalf, leaving humans with control, authority and an enhanced experience.”

In the following video, Leslie Chau goes deeper on digital workers:

Benefits of digital workers

As with chatbots and bots, digital workers can improve employee and customer experience and productivity, and they bring unique benefits in these areas:

  • They not only save human employees time, but they can also assist them in doing more creative, strategic and high-value work by providing the right information and recommendations at the right time.
  • They can perform actions within and across multiple processes and systems, breaking down silos.
  • They can handle more dynamic conversational flows.
  • More advanced digital workers can remember past business interactions to make workflows more effective.

What is a chatbot?

A chatbot is an automated software program that uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to simulate a chat — generally through a website, email, SMS or other messaging app — first by understanding a user’s questions and then providing the correct answers. By processing and simulating human conversation, either written or spoken, the conversational AI delivers an experience that can seem like two people communicating. Chatbots are used for both internal and external customers.

Many companies have AI chatbots, comprised of software and code, that pop up in the lower corner of their website to ask how they can help visitors.

Simple (or rule-based) chatbots respond to pre-written keywords or questions programmed into the system. Advanced or AI chatbots use natural language processing and machine learning. They understand basic language and communication, can understand the different ways a customer may ask the same question and can help with much more complex tasks. They can understand different ways of asking for things, respond with multiple suggestions and offer a back-and-forth conversation that feels, to a customer, as though they are chatting with a human employee in real-time.

Consider a chatbot when your customers want questions anytime they are online. A chatbot means your customers are not limited to getting information and answers only when your call center is open.

The Gartner Technology Roadmap survey found that customer service and support leaders will invest heavily in chatbots over the next several years. While only one in four service organizations fully deploys chatbots and AI today, 37% are running pilots or planning to deploy chatbots by 2023.

Gartner pointed out the growth of chatbots corresponds to the millennials’ increase in the workplace. “Because chatbots cater to millennials’ demand for instant, digital connections that keep them up to date at all times, millennials will likely have a large impact on how well and how quickly organizations adopt the technology.”

Benefits of chatbots

Chatbots provide these unique benefits:

  • They personalize service for many customers at once.
  • They allow end-users to have a self-service experience.
  • They are available for customer interactions and customer service at any time.
  • They can be programmed to communicate with customers who speak different languages.

Chatbots can also be used successfully for lead generation. They let you ask for customer information 24/7 and can add that information to a lead generation form that you then integrate into your sales workflow.

Chatbots can help customers make reservations on the spot, send promotional messages and even identify the right time to engage with customers for sales and business development.

What is a bot?

Unlike digital workers, which perform complete business functions from start to finish, and chatbots, which focus on communication, a bot (short for robot, and sometimes called an internet bot) is a software application that operates over a network and is programmed to do a specific, repetitive, predefined work task that a human would typically do. Bots operate without specific instructions from a person. They are valuable because they execute work much faster than a person (and without errors).

Benefits of bots

Bots are a way to easily automate individual, relatively simple tasks that would otherwise be handled manually.

Basic bots are relied on for the following benefits:

  • They speed simple tasks that can be precisely documented and have a defined sequence of steps.
  • They eliminate human error and provide total accuracy.

The value in digital workers, chatbots and bots

These three types of automation operate differently and meet different goals. Digital workers are trained to complete an entire business function from start to finish. Chatbots are a kind of bot that simulates human conversation, and they focus on a relatively narrow range of issues compared to what digital workers can do. Bots are simpler yet in that they are programmed to complete a single task.

Everything a chatbot and a bot can do, a digital worker can do, but a digital worker can also perform actions within and across processes and systems, handle more dynamic conversational flows and remember past business interactions.

“Conversational AI and RPA are useful and valuable,” says Jon Lester, IBM’s Director of HR Service Delivery & Transformation, “But there are things they can’t do that a digital worker can. Our Ask HR chatbot does its tasks really well — and has saved IBM employees and managers lots of time — but it can only do tasks one at a time. It can’t link transactions across multiple processes or systems. And a chatbot lacks long-term memory. The moment you switch it off, it forgets that you exist. It has no memory of what you did before.”

When to use a digital worker vs. a chatbot vs. a bot

A digital worker is appropriate when the goal is to automate a business function from start to finish, so it can follow sets of sequences and perform multiple tasks. An example of a digital worker’s role might be handling the complete process of preparing a quarterly revenue report and designing a presentation around it for the executive team. Another example would be performing human resources (HR) tasks like creating job descriptions, onboarding new employees, setting up user accounts and handling healthcare referrals.

When your need is around communications, consider a chatbot. Chatbots, which operate around the clock and can respond to questions in various languages, correspond with a customer over messaging to answer FAQs quickly and take pressure off your customer service reps. They can turn potential customers into qualified leads and book meetings or appointments. They also provide a business with information that is valuable for analytics.

As for simpler bots, use them when you need a specific automation task done repeatedly, without requiring supervision or, in fact, any human intervention beyond an initial trigger.

Digital workers, chatbots, bots and IBM

IBM offers award-winning digital worker, bot and chatbot solutions that enable you to do the following:

  • Return significant time-savings to your teams with their own digital employee. IBM Watson® Orchestrate, a 2022 CES Innovation Award Honoree, helps human employees perform both routine and mission-critical work faster. Intelligent digital employees work across existing business apps to take on time-consuming tasks, like gathering data from multiple systems, enabling end-to-end automation of processes in a way that robots or chatbots cannot.
  • Deliver exceptional customer experiences anywhere. IBM Watson Assistant uses artificial intelligence that understands customers in context to provide fast, consistent, and accurate answers across any application, device, or channel. Remove the frustration of long wait times, tedious searches, and unhelpful chatbots with a leader in trustworthy AI.
  • Start your automation journey with AI-driven RPA. Robotic process automation can help you automate more business and IT tasks at scale. IBM Robotic Process Automation can be used to implement attended and unattended bots and chatbot solutions. 

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