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Voice assistants have made a profound change in how enterprises serve customers, as anyone who has ever called into a retailer or government agency knows. Less certain is whether voice assistants -- automated software that uses artificial intelligence to convert speech into computer language -- can help employees in the enterprise.
Microsoft is betting they will, announcing recently that its AI voice assistant Cortana will be integrated into Teams, the tech giant's collaboration platform and Slack competitor.
The integration will allow employees to make a call, join a meeting or add people to meetings using natural, spoken language. The voice computing functionality will be available later this year on laptops, IP phones and conference room devices.
"I think this is an interesting signpost on the way to more natural human-computer interaction," Gartner vice president and analyst Craig Roth said. "This specific announcement -- the ability to add names and make calls [via voice commands] -- is just a useful first step."
The grander vision of more skillful, intern-like voice assistants in the enterprise is still a future goal, Roth said. But he said it will take incremental steps to get there -- both for the technology to improve and for users to "get accustomed to treating their computers as assistants rather than just tools."
"At this point Microsoft has to just establish a foundation -- a simple, accurate implementation of voice for dialing, adding names and meetings -- that can be built on," Roth said. "It's a roadmap or vision of where they'd like to go with this."
Craig Rothvice president and analyst, Gartner
Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, agreed that the relatively simple dictations Cortana currently enables are "the low-hanging fruit of voice-enabled computing," but he sees the Cortana integration into Teams as a differentiator for Microsoft. Other enterprise collaboration platforms like Stride, Spark, Hangouts and Slack have several chatbot integrations, but not voice commands, he said.
As voice assistants are integrated into collaboration platforms and other software, Lepofsky said he expects employees will see them as digital helpmeets.
"Ideally, [voice computing] will not just speed up existing workflows like adding people to meetings, responding to questions or attaching files," he said. "It will also enable people to discover content, people and processes in a new way." The example he gives is asking Cortana or another AI voice assistant to create a group made up of the top ranking sales reps from the Northeast.
Barriers to adoption
According to Lepofsky, the biggest barrier to voice computing in the enterprise is the general lack of understanding among employees about what voice assistants can do -- or their even knowing that the technology exists.
"I hope Teams will guide people through available commands, providing tips for actions that are possible within the context of the tasks or processes people are doing," Lepofsky said. "Think of it as 'Did you know'-type prompts. Ideally these prompts will then learn your specific behaviors and offer suggestions personalized to your work patterns."
With enterprise adoption will also come new demands on IT, Lepofksy said. CIOs need to understand the privacy and security implications with regard to the vendors they choose to work with. They need to ask questions like "How are voice prints or patterns stored?" and "Will the processing of voice input require additional bandwidth?"
Niel Nickolaisen, CTO at human resource consulting company O.C. Tanner Co., said he believes IT leaders should incorporate voice computing into their AI technology roadmaps.
"These are becoming both ubiquitous and reliable," he said of voice assistants, "and there might be a role for them in your organization and products and services." As for voice computing's role in helping employees, Nickolaisen, a columnist and speaker on the CIO lecture circuit, cautioned that using technology for technology's sake rarely ends well.
"Just because the technologies and tools make it easier and more natural, that will not change our culture," he said. "Instead, the question for CIOs should be: 'What can we be doing today that will amplify the power of the improved communication and collaboration tools?'"
IT also shouldn't underestimate the growing concerns -- and heightened sensitivity -- about user privacy in the wake of Facebook's data sharing debacle.
"At this point there are so many privacy concerns that users aren't ready if moves are made too quickly and will recoil if they are made carelessly," Gartner's Roth said.
Of course, there's also the chance that this Cortana-Teams integration could be a misstep for Microsoft, depending on how they play it, said Art Schoeller, vice president and analyst at Forrester.
"There is no question that Microsoft has deep pockets and is doing extensive AI research, but we have seen these assistants run aground before (remember Clippy?) and annoy users instead of truly helping them," Schoeller said.