Voice technology dictates the future of work

Automating services through voice technology offers a step-change in efficiency and will soon be a key element of the workplace


What has been the most disruptive technology in 2017? “No question, it is voice,” according to Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business, who also predicts that a third of all computing will be screenless by 2020 and believes the rise and acceptance of home-based devices such as Alexa and Echo means Amazon has “effectively declared war on brands”.

This trend is only going to accelerate, given the constant improvement in speech-recognition technology. Indeed, in September, digital marketing company iProspect UK’s The Future is Voice Activated report claimed 15 per cent of the British population is currently using this tech. As chief executive Stefan Bardega points out: “That equates to 7.4 million people. There is an exponential effect that will happen with voice activation as more voice data means better accuracy rates – it’s now at 95 per cent and was 30 per cent in 2012 – which in turn fuels more usage.”

While consumers and well-known tech titans, including Google, Microsoft, Samsung, as well as Amazon, may be driving this trend, it will have a huge effect on the business-to-business market, too. And those developments are equally as significant, posits James Kippenberger, managing director for product strategy and innovation at market-leading software provider BigHand. To him, automating services, such as transcription, through voice technology offers a step-change in efficiency and will therefore be a key element of the workplace of the near future.

Businesses could struggle to keep pace with voice technology if they fail to listen to the warnings

“Much of the voice technology that makes the headlines is about instructional or conversational speech recognition, but there is a subtle difference for technology which helps create documents and text accurately,” says Mr Kippenberger, whose company supports 280,000 global users, in more than 2,650 organisations, from its six offices dotted across the world. “In the same way instant messaging started at home and moved into the workplace, businesses could struggle to keep pace with voice technology if they fail to listen to the warnings.”

Having begun at London-headquartered BigHand in 2001, Mr Kippenberger is ideally placed to discuss the evolution of voice technology. “Dictation itself exists because someone could not type words at a reasonable speed. They delegated face-to-face transcription and shorthand was developed,” he says. “Then there was the advent of analogue tapes and by dictating to a machine you could pass the audio on to a secretary.

“The next game-changer arrived in the mid-2000s when digitalisation became a reality and that triggered a mass migration from analogue. Once it was digital, people realised they could do significantly more with it; all of a sudden audio files could be widely distributed, sent immediately from anywhere and instantly received. They could be tracked and analysed. Crucially, organisations could start to pull up data regarding turnaround times and therefore make business decisions about methods of working. Those insights from voice productivity stage two, if you will, allowed companies to look at their operations in a new, informed way.

“Right now we are well into stage three, having moved from digital dictation workflow to using speech recognition. As an industry, we’ve probably achieved just over 10 per cent of penetration on a user account of speech-recognition technology. Various industries, including healthcare, legal, accountancy and finance, are all desperate for this technology to work. They don’t want to be paying someone to transcribe if they don’t have to. Speech recognition is already a success story of artificial intelligence.

“Critically, technology is a means to an end, though. If businesses want to take advantage of the benefits of the tech, they must think about the impact on working practice change and potential organisational change, and properly engage their staff. In essence, they need to be sensible about why they are investing in the technology. Viewing the technology in isolation is a common mistake. We tend to think in terms of 20 per cent technology and 80 per cent people, and firms ignore that ratio at their peril.”

Another macro trend with the future of work is the pull towards flexibility and agile working. And, as the demand for remote and on-the-go working rises, technology that enables more efficient processes and is available around the clock is essential. “That message is coming through loud and clear, particularly from professional services markets,” continues Mr Kippenberger. “Various studies show that making more money is sometimes less important than having more time nowadays. The war for talent is at its peak and one of the big things that employers can offer is a better work-life balance. BigHand’s products help with that, and our automated workflow tools will also make organisations leaner and more efficient.”

Mr Kippenberger predicts that developments in AI will improve voice technology and broader workflow requirements, though says it will probably be more gradual than most people think. “There is a lot of noise in the marketplace right now about things like conversational chatbots and, while there are some very good case studies where instructional voice technology will make a difference in terms of mass-scale adoption, I believe the move to what might be stage four of the evolution of voice technology will take quite some time yet,” he says.

“I think we will definitely see the advent of office-based Google Home-type applications, where you will be able to request actions using your voice that previously could only have been done by completing an electronic form. One example is business intelligence and analytics tools, which offer voice-driven reporting technology. By using dictation, you can verbally request, say, an organisation’s sales of a particular product in South America in the last month and the technology will understand the user sufficiently to then present that data without the need to write a complicated query.”

Mr Kippenberger summarises that while organisations would do well to both be aware of what is happening in this space, and think about how and where efficiencies can be found, there are very real returns and tangible benefits to be gained with the technology currently available.

“In a world where there is increasing demand for more information to be recorded, using your voice to create content makes perfect sense,” he concludes. “And handing your staff the vital tools to be able to do their job from home or on the move is a great place to start.”

For more information please visit www.bighand.com