Alexa, please play the top jazz songs.
Hey Siri, what is the temperature this afternoon?
These are the questions I ask of my virtual voice assistants on my iPhone or at home – almost every single day. I no longer scroll through my music playlist or extend my fingers to search for the information I need. Instead, I speak to Alexa and Siri, asking them to do different tasks on my behalf. The notion of being ‘handsfree’ used to mean having a connection to your Bluetooth headphones. ‘Handsfree’ now really means not having to do anything except use your voice.
Voice technology has been changing consumer habits and it is now starting to make an impact in the business world. For example, it has become possible to imagine a factory technician saying: “tell me if Part 456Z is still available” or an office worker asking his voice assistant as he is walking to lunch: “tell me how many days of childcare leave do I have left this year?”
It was IBM’s Shoebox Device that was the first of its kind back in 1961, laying the foundation for voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and others. Shoebox Devices provided voice interactions with machines for tasks like music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, playing audiobooks, and delivering weather information, road traffic information, sports updates, and daily news.
As the technology improved, voice assistants started appearing in almost all mobile consumer devices like smartphones and smart watches. As their understanding of context, meaning and languages advanced, they became more ‘intelligent’. They became aware of whether their users were in Melbourne, New York, or Shanghai, and could accurately provide the time and weather to inform users in their current location. Today, they can also decipher various accents. Depending on whether an individual is using Alexa or Siri, the voice assistants can understand and “speak” English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, and other languages.
As a result, the adoption of voice assistants has risen. A recent research report from Ovum found that the Google Assistant will soon dominate the voice-AI-capable device market with 23.3 percent market share, followed by Samsung’s Bixby (14.5 percent), Apple’s Siri (13.1 percent), Amazon’s Alexa (3.9 percent), and Microsoft’s Cortana (2.3 percent). In fact, globally, the voice assistant installed base is set to exceed 7.5 billion active devices and ‘overtake the world population’ by 2021.
The Rise of BYO Voice Assistant to Work?
With breakthroughs in AI technology, these virtual assistants have emerged in enterprise settings. A recent study, conducted by the Global Banking and Finance Review, found that 88 percent of enterprise leaders believe that their businesses can gain a competitive advantage and remain successful by integrating voice assistants into their daily operations.
AI has taught, trained, and improved the voice assistants to understand complex sentences and provide the appropriate response. Generally called conversational AI, it is available in any machine that a person can talk to, including chatbots on a website or social messaging application, voice assistant or voice-enabled devices, or any other interactive messaging-enabled interface. People can use these services to ask questions, get opinions or recommendations, find support or complete transactions.
Alexa, Siri, and other voice assistants live in smartphones, smart watches, and other consumer devices. They are ever-present – in many employees’ homes, on the car, bus, train, or at work. With the advent of the smartphone, employers initially banned the use of personal or consumer technology devices at work, primarily because of security concerns. However, BYOD (bring your own device) continued as employees – being too used to having these technologies in all facets of their personal lives – ignored the ban.
With voice assistants or AI becoming the new BYOD, employers must re-think their strategy. Since employees are bringing their own voice assistants to the workplace, it should be acknowledged that these tools can also be used for work to improve business productivity and provide a more engaging interface for employees and customers.
The Role of Conversational AI and Digital Assistants in HR Transformation
As companies undergo digital transformation, HR departments must keep pace. And to that point, conversational AI is a means to accelerate HR transformation.
Imagine if employees can simply ask their mobile phones, computers, or smart watches company-related questions: Who can swap the night shift with me this weekend? How many days of annual leave do I have left? What is the company stock price today? And so on…
HR voice assistants can become an extension of the HR department, enabling employees to find information on corporate policies and personal benefits. Without them, employees would have to log into the HR system, find the relevant page and submit queries. With voice assistants, these queries can be made on-the-go and handsfree, improving productivity as well as the employee experience.
Field employees would find voice assistants especially helpful. They are usually moving from one assignment to another during the day and would appreciate handsfree interaction to get more work done. Just ask the voice assistants for information on inventory, placing orders and product delivery – handsfree and on-the-go. HR voice assistants can transform HR further by taking away time consuming tasks. When job seekers ask for information on the phone or other channels, voice assistants can provide the job descriptions automatically.
HR voice assistants can also do other tasks like scheduling interviews with potential hires and creating profiles in the corporate database for new candidates. At the same time, they can automatically check whether the candidates have previously applied for the position in question.
Conversational AI enables voice assistants to act as a virtual secretary at evaluation meetings and interviews, noting key points, transcribing the meetings, and immediately providing a follow-up, especially when integrated with web conferencing services like Skype or Zoom.
Other use cases for voice assistants could be for the onboarding of new employees and gauging employee morale through voice recordings that are automatically transcribed to text for easy access by business leaders.
Employee experience improves with voice assistants, as they put employees in control of what they want to find out, at any point in time. They do not have to wait for their bosses or HR to respond to their queries.
Every Employee or HR Executive Can Now Have a Virtual Secretary – or Co-Pilot
Enterprises can take advantage of SAP SuccessFactors to use conversational AI in HR transformation. SAP SuccessFactors is a leading digital human experience solution. Integrated into this solution is SAP CoPilot, a HR voice assistant for the enterprise.
SAP CoPilot enables employees to interact with HR systems in an easier and more intuitive way. This intelligent voice assistant for the enterprise can provide recommended links, for instance, so that employees can access the right page in the system to perform an action or get the required information via a chat. Users can also take screenshots and annotate them without leaving the voice conversation, allowing other users to provide the enterprise digital assistant with additional information to help with the query.
Just by having a conversation with SAP CoPilot, employees can order equipment or view all items from different enterprise applications, such as maternity leave requests or inventory purchase requisitions. Given that SAP CoPilot also works alongside SAP S/4HANA and other SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, it enables efficiency within the enterprise to be enhanced to a whole new level.
As a result, business leaders will have faster access to employee information as they can “ask” the HR voice assistants while on the move. Verbal queries overcome the inconvenience of having to log into the system to check spreadsheets and extract data.
Ultimately, with voice assistants, employees will no longer have to search for something like a policy document, download it, and then look for the relevant information within it. Instead, they will be able to ask for and be delivered the relevant information within the document – through voice commands, without having to manually hunt around.
As technology improves and HR managers become more confident in using conversational AI, voice assistants can do much more. They should also be able to respond to policy questions or provide decision support for line managers around common but challenging scenarios like hiring, performance reviews and even layoffs.
Considerations for Deploying Voice Assistants in the Enterprise
Conversational AI is based on natural language processing (NLP) technology that undergirds voice recognition – an advanced process that transcribes speech to text. This process has evolved considerably in recent years and features a constantly improving ability to understand the intent of language, as well as variations in phrases with similar meanings.
With that said, misinterpretations can still occur due to different enunciations or accents. “Swap shifts” can sound like “swap ships” or “food to break fast” can sound like “food for breakfast”. Words and phrases are also used differently across countries. “Vacation” in the US means “holiday” in England. “Sick leave” in Australia is “medical leave” in Singapore. It is therefore critical for HR executives to ensure that the voice assistants are relevant to the local cultures and workplace nuances where they are deployed.
For wide adoption of this technology, it makes sense if workers are already using voice assistants in their personal lives. It stands to reason then that they would be able to take to its enterprise incarnation quickly if deployed in the workplace. Training for its use in the business would also be much shorter.
Like all deployment of new technologies, the HR leadership must get the buy-in of senior management. And it is best to get a senior leader to champion the effort.
Lastly, the team assembled to deploy HR voice assistants ought to have representation from different departments to ensure that the right information and technical support is provided on an ongoing basis.
It is worth noting that the proportion of search queries made by voice on Google has surpassed 20 percent. Without a doubt, the momentum for introducing the ability to talk with smart devices in the office, should be well underway.