Digital Assistants Are Heading To Work With You – Are You Ready?

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It’s infiltrated homes in the form of smart speakers. Now, voice technology is poised to make a big splash in the workplace, as more companies adopt enterprise solutions like Alexa for Business and other speech-enabled tools and conversational interfaces designed to enhance productivity, manage common tasks, and improve communication.

Which begs the question: Is your company ready for voice tech, and vice versa?

What Can a Virtual Assistant Really Do?

From Google Assistant to Siri, Eva to Cortana, and Spark to Watson, voice-enabled AI virtual assistants for the office are hot commodities, many of which can save time by handling tasks of basic to intermediate complexity. These include scheduling, changing and dictating meetings, initiating videoconferences, identifying action items, sending meeting minutes to meeting participants, and accessing corporate applications. Alexa for Business can even check calendars, reorder supplies, find transportation, and control the thermostat, lights, and projection equipment. These capabilities have the potential to increase efficiency as well as impress clients.

“When you walk into a meeting, all you have to say is ‘Alexa, start my meeting.’ Alexa for Business automatically knows what the meeting is from the integrated calendar, mines the dial and information, dials into the conference provider, and starts the meeting,” said Werner Vogels, Amazon’s CTO, in a recent blog post.

Major companies like Salesforce, Vonage, Ring Central and others are already partnering with Alexa for Business and bringing the tech into workspaces. Cisco, meanwhile, asserts that it’s Spark Assistant “will act as a meeting moderator and be a virtual member of the team,” says Scott Amyx, managing partner for Amyx Ventures. “As it amasses new skills, Spark will have the ability to take over entire business processes. The main pain point it currently solves is taking the trouble of organizing videoconferences.”

Bradley Metrock, producer of the annual Alexa Conference and This Week in Voice podcast, says voice assistants must be conversational in nature and able to receive and process multiple commands simultaneously to be of optimal value to enterprises today. “‘Alexa, load the Excel spreadsheet on last month’s sales, run the inventory analysis, and send me the PDF to my work email’ is an example of what corporations are looking for in voice-first technology,” says Metrock. 

The Limitations of Voice Control in the Office

Dan Jackson, director of enterprise technology at Creston, an Alexa for Business solutions provider, doesn’t see voice replacing hands for every business task, however. “Simple interactions can be more effective with a simple button press. However, there is much benefit to voice at work when it comes to tasks with a challenging user interface – like searching for information or data within a system. Additionally, conference room applications are ideal for voice control since it augments the controls that are already in place,” says Jackson.

In the near term, don’t expect scores of enterprises to make hefty investments in voice tech. “Cisco conferencing equipment or a customized IBM Watson implementation can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” cautions Amyx. “Alexa for Business is easier to deploy, since they are using existing Echo and Dot devices and bringing Alexa into their private or hybrid cloud environment for security and management purposes.”

But voice hardware isn’t limited to smart speakers for every cubicle or conference room. “Voice commands will be equally present, before long, in everything from mobile hardware to conference room equipment to in-office speakers and microphones to personal headsets and more,” Metrock predicts.

Businesses should also expect challenges along their journey to voice. “I’m less concerned that voice recognition will make workers lazy and more concerned that it might disrupt the workplace,” says John Carey, PhD, communications and media management professor at Fordham University. “We all know how annoying it can be to hear long conversations in a closed environment when you’re not part of the interaction. The problem will be greater in open offices or cubicles where sound can travel.”

Others worry about data and privacy violations. “Will Alexa and Google and Siri protect corporate data to the degree that the company protects the rest of its information?” Metrock asks.

Despite these uncertainties, many believe voice is here to stay – at home and in the office, too. “Voice-enabled digital assistants will be very successful for simple tasks, and I don’t see anything on the horizon that could replace them,” says Carey.

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