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You’ve seen them spread throughout the consumer world in the form of Amazon Echo, Google Home, and others. Now, voice-activated digital assistants are coming to your office. The announcement of Alexa for Business late last year and the voice assistant takeover we saw at CES last month show us that to power today’s evolving business setting, we need to propel the workplace with trainable digital assistant technologies that are smart, predictive, and able to learn. These devices leverage the capabilities of natural language processing (NLP), predictive analytics, and machine learning to offer recommendations about next steps in unique situations, provide insights, and guide complex workflows — all in a cognitive and conversational user experience.

The B2B sector is deeply affected by trends and developments in the B2C world, and B2B customers are looking for the same buyer experiences that consumers get. Voice technology has been a major part of the consumer setting for years; businesses need to take cues from the connected home or omnichannel retail, for example, in order to create higher-level customer experiences.

Gartner predicted that by 2020, users will complete 30 percent of web browsing sessions without a screen. They will use voice search and audio-centric technologies to access information instead. Companies need technologies that will allow them to be at the forefront of this shift, but the fear of a robotic takeover in our workforce raises mixed emotions on the benefits of technologies like digital assistants. A 2017 study from Pew Research found that 72 percent of Americans are worried about a future where robots and AI will be able to do jobs humans currently hold. People fear that robots (or, in this case, digital assistants) will replace humans in the workplace, but researchers are not developing these technologies to remove us from the equation. Rather, their goal is to augment our capabilities and productivity by freeing us from mundane tasks such as data mining, time logging, benchmarking budgets, and researching logistics.

Assistants will augment, not replace

Another Gartner study reported that in 2021, AI augmentation will not only generate $2.9 trillion in business value but also recover 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity. The machine learning capabilities and predictive nature of digital assistants and other AI-powered technologies can help improve accuracy and cut down the time it takes to solve issues, allowing workers more time to be productive, creative, and reach higher-level results.

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For example, in recruitment, this technology can streamline more of the routine tasks in hiring, such as answering basic questions and checking off a candidate’s qualifications. This lets HR teams focus more heavily on the human aspect of the hiring process, like getting to know candidates on a more personal level and gauging more intangible traits of a person that really can only be uncovered in a one-on-one session.

In transactional enterprises, employees must check information and data, then set it into the right context and process. A time-consuming and error-prone process, the task of matching incoming payments to outstanding deliverables requires high-touch efforts by employees. Combining machine learning and predictive analytics gives access to systems of intelligence, and the automation of business functions provides room for differentiating activities to individuals. Employees can now focus on exception-based handling instead of routine tasks.

Your new trainee, the digital assistant

The Alexa for Business announcement swung a door open, giving us a glimpse at how voice technology mixed with machine learning, NLP, and predictive analytics can catapult the way businesses operate into a new frontier. This was the first of many examples we’ll see in the near future. These digital assistants will become more personalized to the workplace, with the potential to accomplish more than dimming lights, dialing into a call, or starting presentations. Enterprise tech companies will need to focus development on training these technologies to adapt to changing business environments and become proactive assistants.

As the technology develops, digital assistants will be able to predict situations and outcomes to help us with things we don’t even know we need. This has already started to positively affect employee productivity and work-life balance. For example, I have a digital assistant integrated with my work calendar, and it will inform me that my last in-person meeting of the day is at 3 p.m. Based on when this meeting ends and my schedule for the rest of the day, it tells me if I can make it home in the current traffic conditions in time to take the last call of the day from my house. As a result, I can avoid rush hour and finish out my day at home.

The next horizon in the enterprise

The intuitive nature of voice-activated technology is what makes it the most viable next phase in the digital evolution of business. Recent findings from IDC Research stated that by next year, adoption of AI and company-specific digital assistants will lead to a fourfold improvement in knowledge-worker productivity. As the workplace continues to go digital, we will see voice-activated digital assistants take on a more prominent role in supporting us. Companies will continue to implement new technologies to break down barriers to IT, with digital assistants proving to be powerful tools that simplify access and analysis, further elevating the strategic role of humans in business.

Bottom line: Digital assistants for the business setting are here, and while we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of their full potential, the possibilities are huge as we look to tailor them to the enterprise environment.

Christian Pedersen is the chief product officer and senior vice president of SAP S/4HANA Cloud.

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