Executive need to listen

COLUMN | September 27, 2021 | 4 min read

From chatbots to digital personal assistants

DPAs will transform organizations, freeing employees from time-consuming admin work

By Chris Bedi, chief digital information officer at ServiceNow

Siri and Alexa are migrating from the home to our offices. As consumers increasingly embrace voice-activated digital personal assistants (DPAs), digitally savvy businesses will integrate such technology into daily operations, automating routine tasks that have historically chewed up as much as 30 percent of our time at work.

Consumer DPAs are becoming more powerful by the day as they gain the ability to process natural language queries for tasks like navigation and music selection. This technology is rapidly spreading to the enterprise. The next big leap will be cognitive abilities that allow enterprise DPAs to understand contextual information like the role of the person addressing them, the day of the week, the week in the quarter, and so forth.

Over time, enterprise DPAs will start to function like digital employees who take on many important but routine tasks, freeing humans to focus on non-routine, strategic work that requires creativity and leadership.

Future DPAs will be a far cry from today’s enterprise chatbots, which are typically scripted to answer basic queries on employee and customer service sites. By contrast, DPAs can materially offload work from humans. The logical place to start is with time-consuming tasks like approvals, routing work, and following up with HR and IT for routine support.

Enterprise DPAs are part of a broader push to transform the workplace with technologies that boost productivity and lower costs by automating routine tasks. Enterprises that lean into this transformation will win the war for talent.

Voice activation technology dates back to 1952, when Bell Labs introduced “Audrey,” an early chatbot that could recognize a limited number of spoken numbers. More than 20 years later, Carnegie Mellon University, backed by DARPA, created “Harpy,” which boasted a vocabulary of 1,000 words and could understand sentences. In 2011, Apple introduced the first modern digital voice assistant in Siri, which the company integrated in its iPhones.

Thanks to advances in speech recognition and machine learning, Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have since become household staples.

DPAs can materially offload work from humans.

Combined with smart speakers like Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo, consumers can now use simple voice commands to play music, turn on lights, order groceries, and figure out the weather.  It only makes sense that these time-saving tools would also find their way into the workplace.

DPA technology is evolving from “show me how” to “do it for me.” By 2023, 25% of employee interactions with apps will be via voice, up from less than 3% in 2019, according to Gartner. “We believe that the popularity of connected speakers in the home will increase pressure on businesses to enable similar devices in the workplace,” says Gartner vice president Van Baker. (Important caveat: For this prediction to come true, DPAs will need robust security features that block unauthorized access to sensitive corporate data.)

Enterprise DPAs are getting smarter by the day. As the technology starts to learn the habits of users, DPAs can apply contextual knowledge to perform tasks efficiently. For example, your DPA recognizes that the end of the quarter is approaching so it tags any customer meetings on your schedule as high priority. Because it knows that you never schedule work calls before 7 a.m., your DPA will only book calls after that time.

Here’s a key use case for sales teams, C-level leaders, and other customer-facing employees. Rather than manually collecting information about customer engagements before every customer meeting, you can use simple voice commands to access all related data on that customer via mobile device.

As DPAs become more sophisticated and perform increasingly complex tasks, we will need to answer some tough questions. The first is obvious: Will DPAs replace human workers? The short answer is no, but companies and employees will need to adjust work habits. Throughout history, new technologies have made some tasks obsolete but also created new opportunities.

During the 19th century, industrial technologies displaced many artisans and farmworkers, but also created millions of new jobs in factories and offices. When retail banks started to deploy ATMs at scale in the 1980s, many predicted the demise of bank branches staffed by human tellers. Instead the new tech lowered the cost of opening new branches. It also freed tellers from the routine work of processing deposits and withdrawals, allowing them to focus on more strategic tasks like marketing and customer service. Upshot: The number of bank branches in the U.S. grew by 18% between 2000 and 2017, creating strong demand for tellers.

Similarly, DPAs will free knowledge workers to focus on the more strategic, value-add parts of our jobs. With increasingly advanced AI and cloud technology, we’ve clearly started a journey that will eventually result in a self-realized, fully digital worker. In the near future we’ll see DPAs taking on complex but still routine tasks like orchestrating maintenance schedules and closing the books at the end of every quarter.

We’re in the very early stages of this journey. Future enterprise DPAs will be able to handle virtually any routine task that involves memory and pattern recognition. This will free leaders to focus on non-routine work that requires judgment and creativity, such as managing crises, deciding which products to develop, and choosing new markets to invest in.

As DPA technology becomes more advanced, organizations will need to meet the challenge of managing workflows that only exist in code.

As DPAs become more sophisticated and perform increasingly complex tasks, we will need to answer some tough questions.

The result will include step-function increases in speed, productivity, and efficiency. However, the most important outcome will be the talent advantage this creates for enterprises that get it right. As the talent war heats up, employees won’t be able to fathom a work environment without digital assistants.

Want to Get Ahead and Stay There? Rethink IT Service Delivery.

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Chris Bedi is the chief digital information officer at ServiceNow. He leads a global IT organization that is leading digital transformation to create tangible business value for an enterprise cloud company that makes the world of work, work better for people.

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