SOA: Connecting the Pieces

The days of stand-alone speech-enabled IVR solutions are over. Increasingly, speech solutions are not just providing static information, such as hours of operation or making basic telephone transfers (e.g., press 1 for sales). Instead, they are offering customers and employees the opportunity to initiate and/or complete business transactions, access real-time information to streamline business processes, and otherwise interact with the organization in a more convenient and efficient manner. Voice solutions, therefore, need to be viewed as an extension of business information systems such as customer relationship management, workforce management, and communication systems, including the phone, email, and IM systems that connect all employees to the outside world.

Organizations have traditionally upgraded or modified their information systems on a continuous basis or at least much more often than their phone system. To maintain a strong tie between the speech solution and the business information systems means that the voice solutions must now be upgraded or modified more quickly and more frequently just to keep pace with the IT backbone. So the challenge for organizations deploying voice solutions is how to tightly integrate the solutions to their current information systems. When working together the systems should provide the information flow for applications while maintaining enough flexibility to allow for continuous improvements of the solutions. Today more organizations are turning to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) for speech solutions to satisfy both of these requirements. An SOA provides the flexibility and interoperability advantages that stand-alone systems lack and ensures that these solutions can accommodate organizational changes in the future.

The Service Era

Multiple industry surveys over the past year have shown that the majority of medium and large enterprises have either already adopted an SOA or are planning to adopt one in 2006. The primary reason for this is integration of internal systems. SOA offers a new approach to information system design that makes resources on a network available as individual components called "services." These services can be accessed without knowledge of the programming language used to create them or the computing platform on which they run. For example, Java can talk with Perl, Windows can talk with UNIX, etc. This enables different applications, from different sources, to communicate with each other without time-consuming custom coding.

Although an SOA can be implemented using a variety of technologies, the most popular technology is Web services. Organizations use Web services because they provide a standardized way of integrating Web-based applications using open standards over an Internet protocol (IP) backbone.

Speaking of Service

In an SOA, voice solutions and their components can either be services or can access services on the network. For example, when given a zip code, an IVR that relies on a store locator service on the network can return the closest three retail locations. Or, a credit card security application that relies on an outbound dialing service on the network can call a credit card holder and play a recorded message.

There are myriad benefits to such an approach. Organizations can lower overall project time for rolling out new, integrated services. They can reduce development time and costs by leveraging a single service across multiple voice solutions or across voice- and Web-based customer service solutions. Companies can more quickly upgrade services and propagate improvements throughout the organization because the service is a shared resource. Businesses can present a consistent face to the customer regardless of the channel they use to contact the organization. And, companies can provide better customer service by reducing the complexity of integrating voice solutions with enterprise applications.

In addition to providing cost and time benefits related to the ongoing maintenance of voice solutions, SOA can also make it easier to bring speech-enabled solutions into an organization. Eliminating infrastructure and deployment issues and lowering total cost of ownership helps remove some of the common barriers to further adoption of speech-enabled voice solutions. Developers can quickly speech-enable existing Web and business applications by simply creating a voice front end rather than developing the entire solution all over again. Because more data and existing applications are readily available to the developer, more self-service options and speech-enabled business productivity solutions can be created.

Multichannel solutions for unified communications and contact center applications benefit tremendously from service-oriented development methodologies, because they are ideal for integrating disparate systems. With this approach developers can easily call on Web applications, speech services, email management programs, and data sources to create truly robust solutions. Aggregating these diverse systems through Web services also provides a full picture of how well the contact center is serving its customers.

An SOA can be an important enabling technology for the adoption of speech throughout an organization. Traditionally speech has been brought into an organization as part of a specific solution—usually customer service related. As speech becomes an available service on the network, it becomes easier for different groups within the organization to add speech to any business application and create a wider range of solutions. For example, an organization could first employ speech to enhance its self-service applications. From there it could integrate employee data to create a speech-enabled name dialer. By adding presence management data to the application, they can offer "find me/follow me" solutions to enhance productivity.

Successful Service Deployments

For Green Mountain Energy Company, adopting an SOA based on Web services helped the company quickly solve a nagging customer service problem. The company had an aging IVR bill pay solution whose complicated self-service menu was driving callers to agents, even for routine transactions. To ensure rapid deployment, Envox Worldwide proposed a speech-enabled front end for the existing Web application that processes customer payments online. The entire project—from kickoff to full deployment—took less than two months. With an improved user interface, the Envox-based IVR solution increased automation rates by 100 percent.

Additionally, the utility is free to enhance its business systems without worrying about the impact on its customer service solutions. Green Mountain recently upgraded its payment processing system. Instead of having to reintegrate its IVR solution with the new software, the Envox-based system calls the new Web service and continues to function as developed.

With so many companies adopting Web services and an SOA, the integration challenges related to voice solutions have certainly decreased. By leveraging SOA and Web services this way companies, like Envox Worldwide, can lower the cost of speech solutions making them more attractive to a larger audience. Additionally, like Envox, companies can provide customers with greater flexibility to accommodate organizational changes on an ongoing basis.

Another successful deployment of speech as a service is at Societé des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (STIB). For the Belgian mass transit operator, Web services provided a route to passenger satisfaction. It was designed to assist travelers with real-time bus and subway arrival information. Initially, it simply offered Web access to schedule and delay data. While this was great for people sitting at home or in the office, it didn't help people who were already in transit (e.g. those trying to catch the next bus or waiting for one that had been delayed). To meet the needs of mobile travelers, STIB wanted to provide anytime/anywhere access via telephone. At first, the cost of providing this service appeared prohibitive; the revenue generated by a ticket sale did not cover the cost of handling a local call. Therefore, if STIB were to offer this service, it needed to restrict the costs of development and delivery.

Quentris, a leading voice and data systems integrator in Belgium, proposed a solution: a speech-enabled front end for STIB's existing Web service to be developed and deployed on the Envox Communications Development Platform. This enabled Quentris to eliminate duplicate programming work and deliver a truly cost efficient solution.

Now, travelers can call in, say the bus stop name and line number, and hear the exact arrival times for the next two buses in either direction.

Last Words

An SOA is designed to create an IT infrastructure that takes the interoperability advantages of open standards-based systems to a new level. SOA enables greater communication between disparate data stores and business applications at the programming level. For speech-enabled voice solutions, this means faster development at a lower cost. SOA also enables organizations to more quickly adapt to changing customer and market demands and easily enhance underlying business processes.

The expected rapid adoption of SOA by medium and large enterprises should provide a ready backbone through which voice solutions can be easily deployed. As SOA adoption continues to spread, it will remove many of the barriers associated with implementing speech solutions. After all, any technology that can reduce the time, cost, and complexity of developing and deploying speech solutions is worth talking about.

John Joseph is vice president of corporate marketing at Envox Worldwide.



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