A Day in the Life of an Imaginary Firm

Speech technology works - literally. Technical advances are making it quicker and easier to implement speech recognition technology in the workplace, from customer service centers to sales organizations, and eventually, throughout the entire enterprise.
The evidence is in the proliferation of volume licensing agreements, strong channel programs, support and training centers and software development kits. Speech technology is catching on in corporate America, beyond its stronghold in applications for call centers and customer service departments. The technology is moving off the server and onto the desktop, and beyond - into the automobile, cell phone, handheld devices, and "intelligent appliances." Speech and language technology developer Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) anticipates that corporations will soon use speech and language software to simplify many office processes, realizing all the software's business benefits, from increased productivity to better information access and communication, to reduced repetitive stress injury for busy employees.
The market for speech-recognition technology was worth almost $1 billion last year and could reach $2 billion this year, according to William Meisel, president of TMA Associates Inc., a California-based speech recognition-consulting firm. Much of that gain will come from enterprise deployments of speech and language software, applications, tools and services. It's not far-fetched to imagine a business implementing speech recognition in some form in every one of its departments. To get an idea of how this deployment might occur, let's imagine a business - we'll call it Mercury Communications, a hypothetical telecommunications equipment company - as an example of how businesses will implement speech and language technology throughout their operations.

A day in the life of a business wired for speech

8:22 a.m. - Before he's even left the driveway, Mercury Communications CEO David Borden activates his AutoPC, a compact in-dash computer, by speaking the call letters of the station he wants to hear - WOKQ for country music. He breaks from the station to ask the PC to describe the commute traffic. It downloads the information and "speaks" it to him in a natural voice. He tells the computer to place a call from his digital address book and leaves a message for the company's vice president of marketing concerning new performance figures for a 2 p.m. conference call with a prospective partner, Orion Business Solutions. The message waits on the marketing VP's voicemail at the office.

8:46 a.m. - Mercury's VP of Marketing, Sharon Black, turns on her PC and boots up Microsoft Word by simply saying, "Open Microsoft Word" into an ultra-lightweight wireless headset that hooks inconspicuously behind her ear. Black uses the keyboard as little as possible, finding it easier and more intuitive to control her PC by voice. Having listened to Borden's thoughts, she opens a new e-mail file with the command "create an e-mail " and dictates a memo to an analyst in Mercury's testing laboratory who is evaluating the company's newest computer-telephony product, BlazeTel.

11:18 a.m. - Mercury's SouthEast Regional Sales Director, Karen Helms downloads her e-mail on a laptop in a hotel room in Atlanta. Her eyes jump to e-mail from the company's CEO. Borden wants to be sure she dials into the conference call to go over her suggestions for modifying the proposed contract with Orion. The night before, Helms reviewed the contract in the form of a sizeable stack of fax pages, dictating modifications and observations into a slender digital recorder that she keeps in her suit jacket. Now she simply connects the recorder to a serial port on her laptop downloads her dictated observations and attaches them to an e-mail for her assistant. Within minutes the file is transcribed to text on his desktop, checked for corrections and e-mailed to all the conference call participants. Helms disconnects the recorder and finishes her e-mails with an inquiry to Mercury's shipping department to confirm that 12,000 copies of BlazeTel went out the door last week for her largest account.

11:40 a.m. - Black receives the final performance figures from the analyst by e-mail. They're better than she'd hoped. Delighted, she dictates a short reply: "All caps - THANK YOU - exclamation point - send." Black forwards the e-mail to Borden and others, flagging the message for importance and adding her own comments by voice: "Got the final numbers." Realizing the information has significance for their new offices in Japan, she submits the entire report to Mercury's intranet translation server, which will provide a first pass localization to Japanese before transferring it to a professional service. The new office will have the data, in Japanese, by morning.

12:40 p.m. - Although Mercury's customer service call center is humming, only two of the department's six operators are fielding calls. The other four perform proactive outreach to customers to ensure satisfaction with new BlazeTel installations. A call management telephony application with speech recognition and text-to-speech software answers the rising tide of customer service calls. The synthesized speech is so realistic it takes callers a minute to realize they're speaking to a computer. The interactive application simply asks callers to state their needs, recognizes caller commands, and provides the correct information. The application completes most of the calls to the customers' satisfaction in a fraction of the time it would take a human operator or a pre-recorded voice system to complete them.

3:10 p.m. - Mike Pulma heads up the shipping operation at Mercury's headquarters. With product shipments increasing steadily, making sure the "trains run on time" at Mercury is a challenging task. To work more effectively, Pulma's crew is armed with miniature, voice-activated wearable PCs attached to their belts. Teams of workers use them to count off shipments and track orders, logging the data by voice while they move between the pallets. A small headset screen confirms their data entry with a glance. Pulma monitors the wearables' up-to-the-minute data from his desktop PC. He handles Helms' earlier request with ease, responding to her e-mail that, as expected, a 12,000 unit order of BlazeTel products is en route to her lead customer.

3:55 p.m. - After wrapping up Mercury's conference call with Orion Business Solutions, CEO Borden settles into a chair and dictates a cordial letter to Orion's CEO, thanking him for the call and reviewing some of the meeting's key points. Finishing the letter, he directs his PC to print the letter at the front desk and turns his attention to the Web. Querying several travel sites for an airline ticket to Tokyo, Borden browses by voice, moving from one link to the next until he finds a reasonable fare. He completes the order form, firing off Mercury's purchasing information and securing his electronic ticket. Satisfied, he shuts down the computer and heads out the door to his next meeting.

Towards the Speech-Enabled Enterprise

This hypothetical profile of an imaginary firm shows how businesses can use speech technology at many levels - from CEO to receptionist - to improve productivity, communication and comfort in the workplace. Examples include:

  • desktop PCs - hands-free dictation into word processors and e-mail programs;
  • the Web - verbal browsing, from voice querying to navigation;
  • smart, voice-enabled devices - voice activation and dictation, from car PCs and cell phones to wearable PCs;
  • portable digital dictation devices - to capture spoken information at any location;
  • natural language-based telephony applications - from automated customer call centers to unified messaging services;
  • translation software -- to enhance information sharing across language barriers.

L&H is confident that speech and language technology will be deployed in the vast majority of companies that increasingly seize new technology to secure a competitive edge. Because of its nature, this evolution may not be as obvious as the rollout of new desktop PCs or groupware applications.
But just as today's consumers unblinkingly use speech technology when they check their investments or order airline tickets over the telephone, business professionals will also benefit from these technologies as they begin to proliferate in the office environment. Speech and language technology, one of the fastest growing software categories for consumers, will soon take hold in the corporate market, revolutionizing the way we create, access and communicate information in the workplace.

Where does speech & language technology fit into your company's operations? E-mail Paul McNulty, vice president of Lernout & Hauspie's PC Applications Group, (pmcnulty@lhsl.com) if you have a suggestion or question.

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