What does Alexa for Business really mean for our workplaces?

Not content with filling our shopping baskets and recently moving into our homes to connect our TVs, and lighting, Amazon is now looking to workplaces with the launch of Alexa for Business. Simply put, Alexa for Business is an enterprise version of the smart home assistant we’ve become used to requesting for help around our homes. It’s envisioned that eventually, Alexa for Business will be able to assist us with meetings, seamlessly connecting our laptops to display screens without any fiddly wires, turning on lighting automatically and pinging colleagues around the office when they are needed for a task.   

In one fell swoop, it seems as though technology is helping us do away with many of the niggles of our working day - the boring tasks, the ones that make us less efficient, and more. Alexa for Business is one of a whole host of tools that have been developed to help combat the poor productivity levels that seem to be inflicting workplaces everywhere. 

AI as a driver for communication 

Email is said to be one of the main drivers of workplace inefficiency. A stat recently did the rounds saying that the average worker spends 13 hours a week sifting through work emails. That’s over a quarter of the 40 hour work week! Meanwhile, 96% of workers have also said that unnecessary emailing is a huge waste of their time. You can probably see from that last stat that emails that are sent needlessly don’t just hit productivity, but also staff morale as well. 

To help combat this, companies have developed a whole heap of different AI-based communication tools to either manage or eliminate email entirely.

Google has been working on an AI tool that can intelligently respond to emails, much like how predictive text works on your phone. Part of the Gmail app, the ‘Smart Reply’ function predicts responses you’re likely to send, based off what the AI learns from analyzing your past replies. It’s limited to bite-sized responses for now, so don’t expect essay-like email replies just yet! 

Chatbot startup Astro is also working on an AI assistant for your inbox. Currently, the AI will separate your email into priority and other folders; but in the future, plans are for Astro to intelligently filter your email even further, suggest people who might be able to make introductions to others on your behalf, and remind you to email a colleague or client on a specific date.

However, facilitating more effective communication is all well and good, but that’s not all that AI can do to improve productivity.   

Current solutions often miss a basic step of understanding the actual problem needing to be solved. Workplace systems are designed to increase productivity; email, IM etc but they are simply channels to communicate, they are essentially ‘HOW‘ technologies. The reason we spend so much time sifting through emails and messages, the reason project teams, collaboration, and core work activities aren’t optimised is because solutions aren’t designed to find the ‘WHO’, before the ‘HOW’ is then used.    

A lot of time is wasted when the right people aren’t assigned to a particular project or someone cannot find the expert help that they need for a task. The AI developed by ProFinda can help with this. At the moment, it can link up people with specific skills to others who require them and who search via an online interface. In the future, you may be able to simply ask an AI assistant like Alexa to find you someone who can speak French and who understands blockchain and it will connect you to the right person in your organisation immediately. 

Chatbots to facilitate tasks 

Along the same vein, chatbots can be developed to do a range of admin tasks around the workplace. From booking meetings to suggesting business flights, a chatbot can easily do away with the middleman when it comes to simple tasks. There’s even a chatbot called Hello Jarvis that will pop up from time to time to remind you to get your work done. 

However, as many of us have experienced, chatbots do have their limitations. There is a debate over whether their conversational nature is a help or a hindrance to a business. We all still remember the paperclip from Microsoft. Likewise, some tasks and/or phrases are just a little out of their league at the moment. Part of the issue is that our language and syntax is so diverse and detailed, with so many little local nuances. Plus - if you think of the neurosis of terms not only across languages, but also industries and indeed down to a company level, where departments have their own lexicon to simplify their products, services and teams etc. Elon Musk famously did away with the plethora of acronyms used in his companies since he found there were too many and they were making life more complex. Simplicity is key, especially if AI is to fully comprehend and master it. 

But are we limiting AI’s potential? 

This actually highlights another issue with AI tools in general (and not just the workplace). At the moment, AI is being developed for very specific tasks. In other words, we’re almost limiting it by putting AI into lots of little boxes and only feeding it data to do with a role that we want it to carry out. For instance, a call centre chatbot will be trained on call centre data primarily, whilst one that deals with HR will receive HR data. But this is almost clipping AI’s wings.   

If we really want our AI to work like us and assist us like a human assistant would, then we’re going to have to train it on a range of different data. When we go about our working day, we’re not limiting ourselves to just the information contained within our job roles. Our entire day involves taking in data from lots of different sources - from the news we read on our commute, to the water fountain gossip we might overhear about another department. This colours our view of the overall work environment and our role within it.

Returning, once again, to Alexa for Business. While being able to turn on lights automatically and connect your meeting equipment seamlessly is useful, there’s far more potential to be unlocked if Alexa could do, well, everything - including solving the deeper workplace issues around trying to find the right experts. Instead of having a seperate chatbot for your IT issues and an AI to sort your emails, what if your AI could do it all? By feeding an AI the data from every corner of your business, that future may come faster than you think. One day we could be driving into work and we could ask Alexa to switch on the heating in our office, remind us to call a client, and to find us an expert on Bitcoin to help us with the call. 

AI as it currently stands 

That’s not to undermine the current role of AI in the workplace. With AI helping to manage our emails and carrying out our more repetitive labour-intensive tasks, we’ll be freed up to do more ‘higher’ level thinking. Our brains won’t be weighed down by menial tasks anymore, meaning (hopefully) that creativity and strategic thinking will begin to abound in our workplaces. Our jobs will shift towards more supervisory and creative roles, where we think up new products, manage AIs and analyse the data and insights that they give us. 

As well as finding more efficient, AI-enhanced ways of working, we should focus on making the most of our human workforce. Our job roles are going to change as AI enters our workplaces over the next few years. Without us fully understanding the skills that are currently available, we risk losing some highly talented people in the shift that AI brings about. Without a detailed overview of where our talents lie in the current day, we cannot adequately prepare for the future. AI is here to help us, but not before we help ourselves first. 

Finally, back to simplicity. Will solutions start with understanding the core problems they seek to solve? There is a risk that if we don’t apply AI, and use assistance like Alexa to understand some of the base level problems at work (notably leveraging human capital effectively) the market risks seeing another ‘MS Paperclip’ at work. 

Roger Gorman, CEO and Founder of Profinda 

Image Credit: Montri Nipitvittaya / Shutterstock