With one in six Americans now owning a smart speaker, it’s clear to see the rapid impact that voice technology is having on our daily lives. Not all nations are advanced as the US in their take-up, but it’s safe to say that speech-based control of devices and systems has made its mark in a very short space of time and is definitely here to stay.

But what of its business application? In many ways, the potential for voice is even greater in business and industrial environments than it is in the home. Waves are definitely being made but there are stumbling blocks too. Brian Ballard, CEO of Upskill, points to the fact that voice is hugely useful for anyone whose job requires their hands to be doing something other than operating a computer or device. Drivers, machine operatives, nurses, customer services, to name a few examples. As he says, however, a voice in the enterprise is currently “muzzled” and as a CTO looking to develop our own voice-enabled apps for the eProcurement sector, I would certainly agree.

Ballard points to two primary issues. Firstly that voice technology has relatively little value to the “desk-based knowledge workforce who commands the majority of IT spending and attention,” – meaning that to date it hasn’t been very high on the CIO agenda. As investment in IoT and AI grows, however, we should see this voice block alleviate. The second issue and the one I can speak of from experience is that adding voice to existing, complex business systems, is just not that easy to do.

“Voice technology is powered by machine learning systems that are constantly updating based on millions of user interactions,” Ballard comments. “These systems and the accuracy they afford require the kind of massive processing power and back-end data that resides in the cloud; and for some customers, the idea of any public cloud implementation raises concerns about data security, access control, user privacy and legal risk. Consequently, enterprises that are reluctant, for whatever reason, to migrate business applications to the cloud cut themselves off from these kinds of advanced capabilities.”

While the voice for a business challenge is tough, it’s still one worth pursuing. In the world of business applications, for example, much of the functionality different systems afford the business is now commoditised. In my own area of eProcurement, the user experience is everything. As a key transactional business system eProcurement touches many employees, many of whom need their hands for things other than operating a computer or mouse!

Voice technology has huge potential to improve procurement processes, especially when combined with AI. Employees can use it to place orders by voice, just as someone might ask Alexa to replenish their coffee machine cartridges via an Amazon order from the comfort of their kitchen. However, it can also be used for analysing organisational-wide spend too. Consider the benefit of, on remembering a key piece of information you need urgently for your next meeting, being able to simply ask a system questions like ‘what was our computer peripherals spend against a target in Q1?’

Voice-enablement could also make procurement eAuctions far simpler to perform. Rather than needing to manually check supplier rates, verbal commands can be used to access information and make the right supplier choice. And it’s not all about the user asking the questions. It’s just as likely that a voice-enabled eAuction platform could do the talking – briefing the user on its analysis of the auction outcome and which supplier it recommends.

However, going back to the challenges highlighted earlier, I can tell you that applying voice technology to existing business software is not easy. Voice technology means transforming multiple actions built around structured menus, mouse clicks, keystrokes, and even screen swipes into a single voice interaction. Where traditionally the user would ask themselves the question they need answering in their head and then perform a number of actions in the system to find the answer, voice means simply posing the question and leaving the system to do the thinking. This is where AI comes in.

It’s currently difficult to find a procurement app that can accurately identify all of the necessary information needed to answer a concise question. That’s why it’s more challenging developing a voice-enabled app for business use than it is for consumer environments. In procurement, for instance, it would need to include purchase order approval functionality and be able to assess the cost-effectiveness of the products or services being requisitioned. Apps that can perform consumer ‘shopping tasks’ are often dealing with much simpler requests which don’t require anywhere near the same depth or layers of process or decision making.

Voice is a challenge for other business functions too. Businesses as a whole are hesitant, according to analyst CCS Insight, especially given the risk for sensitive information to be ‘voiced’ and overheard in open working environments. This raises the question of security, however, progress is being made on the development of specific voice recognition systems into business applications. This means voice becomes the security system too. From a procurement perspective, it means allowing only permitted users to buy items as recognised by their speech. Beyond security, in procurement voice recognition could also work alongside AI and machine learning to tailor purchase recommendations to individual user profiles.

Voice is rapidly becoming the norm when it comes to how we use technology and apps in our daily lives and, while business is currently lagging behind, I’m confident that it will catch up. The potential applications and benefits are huge, not only in procurement but across a variety of business functions and processes.