What impact will voice assistants have on the workplace?
2018-03-13 Beacon NY - Alexa has become a fixture in my home, providing the most basic answers (Alexa, what time is it?), support for planning and to-dos (Alexa, put broccoli on the shopping list), and as a conduit to other services (Alexa, open Big Sky. (Big Sky is the Dark Sky weather service.)).
So, it’s fairly simple for me to imagine how Alexa could play a similar role in business contexts, as explored in the section below.
I wonder about the transition and merger of mobile devices, wearables, and ambient voice. Will goggles (like the old Google Glass) become a real thing? Can eyeglasses with bone-conducting sound input and output replace text and touch interfaces? If offices ‘know’ who we are through video observation (surveillance sounds so intrusive), can we talk with Alexa or other assistants wherever we are?
I bet we are headed for a Cambrian explosion of competing solutions, of all shapes, sizes, and approaches. But I am certain of two obvious starting points:
Alexa Echo (and competitors’) devices used in contextually-defined locations, like meeting rooms (see Vogels use case below).
Siri, Google Now, and Alexa assistants on our mobile devices, which are identity-linked to the owner of the device.
Expect to see other experiments, and a long shake-out before a new paradigm obsoletes today’s type-and-touch-on-mobile standard.
Voice Assistants at Work
Werner Vogels, the CTO of Amazon, has a great post making the case for Alexa for Business, after the company announced that they are planning to bring Alexa into work contexts. Vogels uses a great use case for Alexa playing the role of meeting assistant:
Just like Alexa is making smart homes easier, the same is possible in the workplace. Alexa can control the environment, help you find directions, book a room, report an issue, or find transportation. One of the biggest applications of voice in the enterprise is conference rooms and we've built some special skills in this area to allow people to be more productive.
For example, many meetings fail to start on time. It's usually a struggle to find the dial-in information, punch in the numbers, and enter a passcode every time a meeting starts. With Alexa for Business, the administrator can configure the conference rooms and integrate calendars to the devices. When you walk into a meeting, all you have to say is "Alexa, start my meeting". Alexa for Business automatically knows what the meeting is from the integrated calendar, mines the dial-in information, dials into the conference provider, and starts the meeting. Furthermore, you can also configure Alexa for Business to automatically lower the projector screen, dim the lights, and more. People who work from home can also take advantage of these capabilities. By using Amazon Echo in their home office and asking Alexa to start the meeting, employees who have Alexa for Business in their workplace are automatically connected to the meeting on their calendar.
Vogels also touches on Alexa integration into enterprise applications, but we’ll have to see how that rolls out.
On Dropbox IPO
Dropbox is apparently headed for a ‘downround IPO’, meaning that the value of the company in the upcoming IPO, around $7B, will be less than the valuation in its last VC round back in 2014. Unless the stock rises, those who paid at the old $10B value will be losing money, or forced to hold for an eventual payoff.
My bet is that the Giants will dominate the file sync-and-share niche — Microsoft, Google, and Amazon — and the pure-play startups are in a downdraft. Which is why Dropbox’s value has dropped $3B in four years.
May be a good time for them to cash out, since in another few years they might be worth only $5B.
On Performance Management
Steven Sinofsky has a great rundown on performance management:
Like so many company processes, when a company is doing “well” then the processes are exactly the right ones and magical. When a company is not doing so “well” then every process is either a symptom or the cause of the situation.
For as much as many might wish to think of performance management as numeric and thus perfectly quantifiable, it is as much a product of context and social science as the products we design and develop. We want quantitative certainty and simplicity, but context is crucial and fluid, and qualitative. We desire fair, which is a relative term, but insist on the truth, which is absolute.
He offers deep insight throughout, like this:
Those that look to the once a year performance rating as the place for either learning how they are doing or for sharing feedback with an employee are simply doing it wrong — there simply shouldn’t be surprises during the process.
A must read.
On Building Networks
Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton researched social networking research in the workplace, and learned Why New Hires Need New Friends:
In a 2005 Babson College study of onboarding practices, researchers found that new hires who got up and running quickly and successfully were better at building strong networks than their less newbies did.
One of the companies studied was a global energy firm. The researchers found that while most of the firm’s new hires communicated regularly with only a few colleagues–mostly within their own teams–one new hire, Jake, “quickly become a central player.” He established solid connections with many more members of the team and others outside his group, and became a valuable source of information, effectively tapping all the new people he met for what he needed.
Some people, like Jake, are simply better at developing personal networks quickly, which might suggest that it isn’t a manager’s job to encourage this. But the Babson researchers argue that actually the lesson here is the reverse: Leaders who most successfully onboard people take what they call a “relational approach” to the task, actively assisting new team members in creating those all-important social bonds right from the get-go.
Consider this finding in light of what I laid out in the recent newsletter issue, Work Futures Daily - Emergent Leadership and Social Capital:
More employers are opening new paths to leadership by encouraging employees to develop spheres of influence that have nothing to do with the org chart.
Such informal power is increasingly important—and valued—in today’s flatter organizations, where more jobs confer responsibility for teammates’ performance without the authority to give orders or dish out rewards or punishment, says corporate trainer Dana Brownlee, of Atlanta.
We will continue to see confirmation of these ideas, and incentive for companies to take active steps to make the workplace conducive to people making more connections, more business relationships, and more friendships.
A study by Alex Pentland’s group at MIT in 2012
studied the communication patterns among high-performing teams versus lower-performing ones. What they found, somewhat unsurprisingly, is that social ties like friendship at work were crucial to performance. Friendships at work foster not only stronger communication, but stronger bonds to and within the organization overall.
However, businesses seldom do much to explicitly increase the number of social connections, despite all manner of talking about ‘building strong organizations’, a term that generally is code for other negative activities, like groupthink, and indoctrination to the philosophies of the founders.