What were your big takeaways from those events?
Dan Penton: The pace of change internal comms is going through right now with the digital workplace. It feels like internal communication finally has that seat at the table it’s craved for so long and is an integral part of organisations.
The likes of Microsoft and Facebook get this, which is reflected in the applications and solutions we’ve been seeing from them, as well as dedicated internal comms applications that are on the market like SocialChorus.
CG: For me, when I do get the chance to visit London, it’s about the handshakes and hugs.
DP: Absolutely - well you’re well known in the IC space, so for me personally, it was great to finally meet you having listened to and read your thoughts over the years!
CG: Well that’s very kind, but because there are so many IC leaders in London it’s easy to get complacent over actually MEETING people versus just knowing them through LinkedIn, Twitter and the like.
DP: It’s one of my resolutions in 2018 to attend more events, as it’s easy to, as you say, get stuck in a bubble and engage from afar. Nothing like meeting people face-to-face, and the opportunities it can bring. For example, we wouldn’t be doing this now, if we hadn’t met last year.
CG: Absolutely. And since then, I’ve been paying closer attention to what you’re doing and am intrigued by the focus on chatbots... in particular voice-enabled chatbots. What is your focus in that space?
"Analysts estimate that Amazon sold 33 million Alexa enabled devices last year (up from 4 million in 2016), so there’s no question that people within your organisation will be using Alexa regularly."
DP: Like many readers, my household got an Amazon Echo last year and it quickly became part of our daily lives, from setting timers to listening to the radio, to adding items to our shopping list.
What I noticed straight away is how quickly my family started using it. For those reading that haven’t used a smart speaker before, you literally speak to the device like it was a person in the room with you. It’s so easy and natural to use.
I started thinking about how it could be used in a workplace setting as another communication channel. I looked ‘under the hood’ at the types of skills out there and how they are created and went from there.
CG: For those who may not have an Amazon Echo or something similar, define what a “skill” is.
DP: A skill is basically like an app on your phone, but on the speaker.
Lots of companies like Uber and Domino's already have their own skills. The Uber skill, for example, allows you to request a car via Alexa and get updates without checking your phone. T Domino’s skill allows you to order your favourite pizza by just saying a few words.
CG: And one of the reasons Amazon is taking the lead a bit here is because they’ve recently launched Alexa for Business. So they certainly see “voice” playing a big role in the workplace.
What are your thoughts on bringing Alexa to work?
"The advantage of voice here is when people need the information, they could just ask the device and get it, rather than having to hunt it down."
DP: Analysts estimate that Amazon sold 33 million Alexa enabled devices last year (up from 4 million in 2016), so there’s no question that people within any given organisation will be using Alexa regularly.
Amazon has moved quickly to launch Alexa for Business and they’ve already got several practical use cases for voice in enterprises. You can do things like book a conference room when you walk into the room by asking Alexa if the room is free or if you can book it. It can also be used for things like finding out the status of IT support tickets.
I think Alexa will quickly become a new communications channel.
For example, people could start consuming content like townhall recordings or start doing training via Alexa.
Another area I think has a lot of potential is for exploring content via voice. We developed a skill recently where users can engage with a company strategy, asking it about specific pillars and hearing relevant news snippets. Again, the advantage of voice here is that when people need answers, they can just ask the device rather than having to hunt it down on the intranet.
"That’s why I think Amazon and the other tech giants are making such a play for voice. They see it as the next operating system."
CG: I think that’s a key point here. In the cases you describe, employees are using their words to find the information they want—not having to search based on someone else’s words.
One challenge here is that Alexa obviously needs to be fed the information to start with. In the strategy example, a decision has to be made about what information to put in the system, and then that info needs to be kept up to date.
CG: I know there are people who will be reading this and saying “I would never…” and they probably wouldn’t. And for some, using voice commands will seem clunky at first—present company included.
But you know who it’s not clunky for? The next workforce. My kids who are 12 and 9. A browser is worthless to them. But they’ve been speaking to Siri, and now Alexa, for years. This is their “browser.”
DP: That’s a really interesting point you make. It shows how little friction there is. I think it goes beyond just a browser though. I think voice will become the next operating system.
"Alexa could work well for companies wanting to reach their on-the-road workforce (who are typically hard to reach and engage with)."
CG: I would say that most communicators probably look at it more as a device rather than an operating system.
Right now on my desk, I have an Amazon Echo Dot. Yes, it plays music for me. But I also recently linked it up with my work calendar. So at any point, Alexa can remind me of meetings or I can ask her what I have up next. This is basic stuff but really points to how, as an OS, it can be both a digital assistant and navigator for individuals or teams of employees.
DP: 100%—and the voice experience is improving on a daily basis with new skills and updates. As a digital assistant and navigator, what it does is save time. That’s one of the main reasons I think it will be attractive to both employees and employers.
CG: This is my challenge to communicators: don’t think of it as a device, like many of us do now. In the future, your computer could be Alexa-enabled. Or your monitor. Or anything.
DP: Yes. And it’s already starting to happen.
Earlier this month, Amazon announced that Alexa is now being built into things like bathroom mirrors, microwaves and smoke alarms. It’s already integrated with some Fords and is coming to BMW and Mini’s this year.
It’s not going away and will become commonplace in our lives in the next 12-36 months. I would go a step further on your challenge and encourage communicators to start thinking about how voice could be used in their organisation.
CG: And I can see some objections already as companies have shifted to a more open space environment where voice is often a distraction.
DP: That's the most common objection we hear, and it's valid. It’s pretty scary to imagine an open space office full of Echos talking all at the same time! But just this week it was announced that Alexa is being integrated into HP, Acer, Asus and Lenovo laptops, so people could soon be interacting with Alexa via their headsets at work, which would eliminate that problem.
"If you haven’t got an Alexa, look out for when Amazon has them on sale, buy one and start experimenting with it. That’s the best way to learn."
CG: So many of us work with earbuds in during the day anyway that I don’t think it would be as interruptive as many think it would be.
DP: People probably had the same fears when Skype for Business was released a few years back, and now people think nothing of their colleague talking to their laptop.
CG: I’m going to ask you to place a bet. As chatbots continue to be talked about in internal communications, do you think voice-based bots or text-based bots will win out?
DP: That’s a tough one… both have their merits. But voice has its advantages in multitasking, whereas with text chatbots you have to type and click.
If I was to make a bet, I’d say in the next three years, chatbots will win out in the office, but voice will win with mobile or remote workforces.
Alexa for Business already allows companies to develop internal skills and push them out to people’s personal devices, so it’s likely already happening.
CG: We’ve talked about the communicators who could be the naysayers. But what about those who get excited about this idea? Where can they go to learn more about voice, chatbots and “the future?”
DP: If you’ve got an Alexa, my company—DMP Voice—does a daily flash briefing called: ‘The Comms Briefing’. It’s a 2-3 minute piece on the latest developments in the digital workplace and internal communication. We cover a lot on Workplace by Facebook, Office 365, Alexa and intranets.
If you haven’t got an Alexa, my recommendation is to become a practitioner. Buy one and start experimenting with it. That’s the best way to learn.
CG: That’s always my recommendation. Have some fun with it and play around before making any judgments. Let’s wrap this up the way we always do:
Describe your thoughts on internal comms via emoji form.
DP: 💨 The moving fast emoji.
It’s amazing how fast IC is changing right now. Who’d have thought 12 months ago that Facebook would have one of the most dominant internal comms products out there, and we’d be talking about Amazon making moves into the enterprise. It’s a great time to be in IC!