Virtual assistants: The Veruca Salt approach to business - get whatever you want, just by asking

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With the rapid rise of voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri, comScore predicts that by 2020, fifty per cent of all internet searches will be made by voice. While the average person can type forty words per minute, they can speak up to 150. According to Ventana Research SVP and research director David Menninger, 2018 will be the year that voice and natural language interfaces become mainstream.

“For decades, the man-machine interface has been based on keyboard and mouse interactions,” says Menninger. “We’ve learned to use these devices, but neither is natural to us, and as a result, it restricts the audience for various technology initiatives including analytics and business intelligence.”

“As devices of all types allow users to leverage language, we will see adoption of related types of technology among a broader audience. This is particularly relevant for analytics initiatives which have traditionally struggled to reach widespread and regular usage throughout an organisation,” notes Menninger.

 Voice-enabled assistants are now built to help companies operate more efficiently. To keep up with competition, C-Suites should work to ensure their organisations can reap the benefits. It’s always important for businesses to keep up with disruptive technology with the potential to change their industry or workflow, and the advent of assistants like Alexa is one that should not be overlooked.

With smartphones, apps, and devices linked to the internet of things, we take for granted that information is instantly available at our fingertips in and out of the workplace. But as Menninger predicts, the advent of voice technology could turn office life on its head.

Moving beyond our comfort zone

We’ve recently witnessed the rise of Amazon Echo and Google Home, and we’ve seen brands integrate with virtual assistants like Alexa. These devices are popular for helping consumers order the family’s weekly groceries or a Domino’s pizza without picking up the phone, so it’s hardly surprising that boardroom executives have been slow to find practical value for them in the workplace. Yet if someone can programme Alexa to order pizza, why can it not also be integrated with big data analytics for everyday business operations?

Data analysts and CIOs could consume business analytics via voice-enabled devices instead of relying exclusively on charts and graphs. This would make it easier for everybody in the organisation to gather data-led insights and make critical decisions. Forward-thinking business leaders are now recognising that information they once received exclusively from a screen could come from a speaker sitting on their desk instead.

It’s the little things and the big

The potential for business-oriented Alexa integrations are twofold: the little things don’t pile up like they used to, and the big things become a lot more feasible. Minor tasks like granting access to files, sending expense reports, and searching for a file typically take more time than we care to admit. Accomplishing these tasks via voice command can cut some of these frustrations and return flexibility to our schedules.

When it comes to the big-ticket items, the potential impact is even greater. For example, if you need to pull profitability numbers before a meeting, you could simply ask: “Alexa, what’s our profitability in the UK today?” Alexa could respond, “Profitability in the UK is up three per cent from yesterday, on track with monthly targets.” Tasks that once required multiple levels of research or filtering can now be accomplished in a matter of seconds.

These shortcuts can also boost productivity across offices or regions. For example, if Alexa tells you that productivity numbers are down for one office, she can immediately schedule a meeting with the executive in charge to address concerns and make systematic change.

The value here isn’t restricted to the C-suites of vast organisations, either. For example, a marketing manager at a mid-size company can ask Alexa, “What was our market share in October 2017?” and immediately receive the exact results. Alexa can then share the data with all direct reports, reducing the need for formal emails or meetings.

These capabilities are not innate to Alexa, but the possibility is most certainly there.

On the horizon

Software engineers are developing technologies to enable the use of virtual assistants for business purposes. For example, they are creating ways for data analysts to certify or stamp data before virtual assistants can access them, ensuring that the data shared to business leaders by Alexa or Siri will always be up-to-date and accurate. Assistants are also being enabled to “view” users’ screens and access organisations’ platforms, allowing them to report analytics tailored for the individual who asks for it.

When paired with natural language generation that can “translate” data in charts and graphs into sentence-format analysis, voice assistants can give detailed reports of business growth, sales, finance, and more to leaders whether they are at home, travelling, or in the office.

Assistants can connect with other business workflow and management tools, allowing users to access information, contact people, schedule meetings and events, and much more, just by talking to a smart device. With the potential to streamline business workflows and reduce the number of meetings necessary to share and discuss information, virtual assistants can bring significant progress to business efficiency.

Making an impact in unexpected places

We’re in an age of accelerated disruption where business leaders need to get answers quickly and easily. Those who embrace new technologies will gain an edge over competitors who are slower to adapt.

The effort to improve efficiency in a modern, forward thinking organisation can’t be restricted to dashboards, laptops, or even smartphones. As consumer devices make advanced technology more approachable, voice-enabled shortcuts will become more accessible. Once they catch on, systems like Alexa will empower employees everywhere to easily access information they require to benefit the business.

Ready or not, the future is here. For enterprise organisations, it must be a data-driven one—and voice may be the great enabler.

Tim Lang, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, MicroStrategy Incorporated
Image source: Shutterstock/polkadot_photo