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Virtual assistant technology, popular in the consumer world, is migrating toward businesses with the hopes of enhancing employee productivity and collaboration. Organizations could capitalize on the familiarity of home-based virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, to boost productivity in the office and launch meetings quicker.
Last week, Amazon announced Alexa for Business, a virtual assistant that connects Amazon Echo devices to the enterprise. Alexa for Business allows organizations to equip conference rooms with Echo devices that can turn on video conferencing equipment and dial into a conference via voice commands.
“Virtual assistants, such as Alexa, greatly enhance the user experience and reduce the complexity in joining meetings,” Frost & Sullivan analyst Vaishno Srinivasan said.
Personal Echo devices connected to the Alexa for Business platform can also be used for hands-free calling and messaging, scheduling meetings, managing to-do lists and finding information on business apps, such as Salesforce and Concur.
Overcoming privacy and security hurdles
Before enterprise virtual assistants like Alexa for Business can see widespread adoption, they must overcome security concerns.
“Amazon and other providers will have to do some evangelizing to demonstrate to CIOs and IT leaders that what they’re doing is not going to compromise any security,” Gartner analyst Werner Goertz said.
Vaishno Srinivasananalyst, Frost & Sullivan
Srinivasan said organizations may have concerns about Alexa for Business collecting data and sharing it in a cloud environment. Amazon has started to address these concerns, particularly when connecting personal Alexa accounts and home Echo devices to a business account.
Goertz said accounts are sandboxed, so users’ personal information will not be visible to the organization. The connected accounts must also comply with enterprise authentication standards. The platform also includes administrative controls that offer shared device provisioning and management capabilities, as well as user and skills management.
Another key challenge is ensuring a virtual assistant device, like the Amazon Echo, responds to a user with information that is highly relevant and contextual, Srinivasan said.
“These devices have to be trained to enhance its intelligence to deliver context-sensitive and customized user experience,” she said.
Integrating with enterprise IT systems
End-user spending on virtual assistant devices is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2021, up from $720 million in 2016, according to Gartner. Enterprise adoption is expected to ramp up by 2019.
Goertz said Amazon had to do a lot of work “under the hood” to enable the integrations with business apps and vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, Polycom and BlueJeans. The deep integrations with enterprise IT systems is required to enable future capabilities, such as dictating and sending emails from an Echo device, he said.
Srinivasan said Alexa for Business can extend beyond conference rooms through APIs provided by Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit for developers.
“Thousands of developers utilize these APIs and have created ‘skills’ that enable automation and increase efficiency within enterprises,” she said.
Taking use cases beyond productivity tools
While enterprise virtual assistants could be deployed in any type of company looking to boost productivity, Alexa for Business has already seen deployments in industries such as hospitality.
Wynn Las Vegas is equipping its rooms with Amazon Echo devices, which are managed with Alexa for Business, Goertz said. Guests of the hotel chain can use voice commands, called skills, to turn on the lights, close the blinds or order room service.
Another industry that could see adoption of virtual assistants is healthcare. Currently, Alexa for Business supports audio-only devices. But the platform could potentially support devices with a camera and display that could add video conferencing and telemedicine capabilities, Goertz said.
Alexa for Business also has the potential to disrupt the huddle room market by turning Echo devices into stand-alone conference phones, Srinivasan said.
Amazon Echo prices range from $50 to $200, and the most recent generation of devices offers improved audio quality. The built-in virtual assistant with Alexa for Business and developer ecosystem fills a gap that exists in the conference phone market, she wrote in a blog post.
“Amazon is well-positioned to grab this opportunity much ahead of Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri,” she said.
It is a big day for Rachna Gupta, an Assistant Manager at State Bank of India (SBI). After dropping her 11-year-old daughter at school, she hurries to the Mayur Vihar Metro station for her daily hour-long commute to Chandni Chowk. Her thoughts are preoccupied with the upcoming presentation. “Will there be any last-minute hiccups?” she nervously wonders.
Her smartphone pings as she exits from the Chandni Chowk Metro station and hails a cycle rickshaw. It is an email from her team asking for changes in her presentation. Unlike earlier, when she’d have to wait to reach her desk to get any work done, Gupta opens the PowerPoint file from OneDrive on her phone. As the rickshaw snakes through the narrow lanes of the original walled city of old Delhi, she makes the changes and shares the new file with her team.
“For customers, banking has transformed completely. But technology has also made the life of employees’ smoother, and tension-free,” she says as she gets off at the 200-year-old heritage building that was once a palace belonging to Begum Samru. The building is a fitting location for SBI, which also traces its roots to pre-Independence India, with the formation of the Bank of Calcutta in 1802.
Gupta is one of the 263,000 employees at SBI, who are reaping the benefits of a modern workplace. This is the story of how one of the oldest banks in the world embarked upon a digital transformation journey for more than quarter-of-a-million employees, who serve over half-a-billion customer accounts.
As with any organization with the scale and size of SBI, different technology solutions implemented at different times meant that most solutions were not talking to each other while some were archaic.
Emails were taking hours to get delivered and employees had to clear their inboxes frequently to ensure they had enough space for new emails to come. Documents were being shared as attachments with multiple versions getting created. There was no Global Address List and most employees could not access the official intranet network on their phones – they had to be on their desk, in front of their PC to do anything.
Things were even more difficult for senior employees, who had to travel to various branches for meetings as they could not remotely check-in. Teams in different branches, even in big cities, had no seamless way to connect with each other.
It was becoming clear to the senior leadership that for a behemoth like SBI, workplace transformation was essential to fulfill the service expected by its 500 million customer accounts, and to retain its leadership position in the super-competitive banking sector in India.
“It was vital to take digital transformation to our workforce – empowering them to become digitally enabled. We had to ‘Hit Refresh’,” says Arundhati Bhattacharya, who recently retired as SBI’s Chairperson and who had initiated the digital transformation at the bank.
The need of the hour
SBI required a solution that would address three key challenges. An integrated platform approach for all productivity requirements; simple to apply use-cases allowing for employees even in remote areas to be included; and an agile platform leveraging cloud that would give the bank the scale of operations required. Additionally, it was important to give employees a seamless experience across various devices like mobiles, tablets and PCs.
Microsoft’s modern cloud technology fitted perfectly with SBI’s vision of a contemporary workplace. Microsoft assessed the work environment and created role-based access profiles, including all employees from Chief Managers to Officers, clerical staff and other categories of employees, even those who have retired. Today, 263,000 SBI employees are on Office 365, using services like Exchange Online, OneDrive, Skype for Business, SharePoint Online, among others as a part of their daily work tools.
“The mobility solution from Microsoft helps us exercise continuous control over all the enabled devices. Our employees will now experience a modern digital workplace platform that will empower them to collaborate effectively from any device anywhere (Android, iOS, Mac and Windows), provide an integrated experience and reduce complexity,” says Mrityunjay Mahapatra, Deputy Managing Director & Chief Information Officer, SBI.
“We are excited about our partnership with Microsoft. As India’s economy continues to grow, the BFSI sector needs to be well-equipped to address the dynamic market pressures and evolving industry needs. It has become imperative to transform technologically to sustain a competitive edge. A digital culture shift, designing a modern workplace that harnesses digital intelligence and enabling mobility are key aspects. Microsoft’s cutting-edge technology is helping us lead this digital transformation by making it part of our DNA,” says Rajnish Kumar, Chairman, SBI.
On ground zero
At SBI’s Chandni Chowk branch, in the meanwhile, Gupta’s presentation went off better than expected. “The work in banking is the same, but the way we have do it is different. Everyone’s productivity has increased. We are doing the same work with more enthusiasm,” says a beaming Gupta.
As she prepares to leave for home to spend time with her daughter and family, we ask her what her ideal workplace of the future would be. She closes her eyes, “There may be a point in future, where I may close my eyes and imagine myself in office and I will be in office.”
Well, who knows what the future has in store?