Staff, Meet Alexa, The Newest Member Of Your Productivity Team

Alexa is going to work. Amazon Web Services yesterday introduced Alexa for Business at the company’s annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas and in a blog post, promised that it will enable workers to be “more productive and organized on both personal and shared Echo devices.”

“There are new integrations with Microsoft Exchange, RingCentral, Salesforce and SAP Concur and SuccessFactors software, among other things,” Amazon CTO Werner Vogels revealed at re:Invent, according to a story by CNBC’s Jordan Novet. “And administrators will be able to manage Alexa-enabled devices and third-party skills that are available to end users. Administrators can even provide ‘private’ skills.”

“Voice is the first disruption that will be driven by the capabilities of sort of the deep learning tools that we're giving you,” Vogels said.

“The effort to expand Alexa’s reach into the workplace comes as the service faces increased competition from virtual assistants created by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Apple Inc.’s Siri, and Microsoft Corp.’s Cortana. Windows 10 computers, increasingly rolling out into workplaces, include the ability to speak to Cortana and get audio responses, for example,” write Jay Greene and Laura Stevens for the Wall Street Journal.

“That competitive pressure, in part, has led Amazon to add hundreds of engineers to the Alexa program and give it hiring preference over other divisions,” they continue.

Then again, “if you're Microsoft, you have to be worried. I can't help but wonder about how much of the Alexa for Business plan Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was privy [to] when he signed that Alexa-Cortana partnership deal this summer,” writes ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley.

“After today's announcement, I'm not sure why anyone using Alexa would need or want to ask Cortana to book a meeting or check a work calendar. As Amazon announced, Alexa for Business will integrate with Office 365 and support on-premises Exchange — just like Cortana,” Foley points out.

WeWork, which seems to be in the news constantly these days, “has been on the Alexa for Business platform for about a month now, as part of the beta, and has integrated Echos in meeting rooms at the Chelsea HQ. The testing has only been available to WeWork employees, not members, to better understand the various use cases,” reveals TechCrunch’s Jordan Crook. 

“With WeWork, users can utilize the ‘ask WeWork’ skill to extend a meeting room reservation, see which meeting rooms are empty, or ask when the next meeting in that room is scheduled to start. Users can also dim the lights or turn them on or off. WeWork has also integrated Alexa for Business with Zendesk so users can report a problem in the room with their voice,” Crook continues.

Regarding those “private” skillseWeek’s Chris Preimesberger offers this explanation for developer types: “Dig into the Alexa Skills Kit and build your own skills. Then you can make these available to the shared devices and enrolled users in your Alexa for Business account, all without having to publish them in the public Alexa Skills Store. Alexa for Business offers additional APIs, which you can use to add context to your skills and automate administrative tasks.”

Private as those skills may be, larger privacy issues are a concern.

“Companies will undoubtedly be cautious about putting Alexa into meeting rooms and offices where sensitive information is being discussed,” observes Dave Lee for the BBC. “Echos are always listening, and while Amazon says they don’t collect information until activated with the ‘Alexa’ wake word, there are times when this happens by accident.

“Furthermore, the firm stores recordings in order to make its cloud-based service ‘smarter.’ And it has suggested that in the future it might share transcripts with third-party developers looking to make apps — known as ‘skills’ — for the platform,” Lee continues.

“So, to help overcome any nerves, [CCS Insight analyst Geoff] Blaber said it made sense for Alexa to start with mundane office tasks, such as ordering more printer paper, before anything too adventurous.”

Actually, if Alexa really wants to prove herself useful, she’ll be able to refine and present a bulletproof argument for that humongous raise you deserve and are too nervous to ask for.

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