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Microsoft announces Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise

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In the span of a few short years, voice has taken center stage in the smart home. Thanks to advancements in natural-language processing that spawned digital assistants like Siri and the breakthrough gadget that was the Amazon Echo, it’s now a totally normal thing to talk to your house — for tasks as varied as setting timers to arming security systems.

In the workplace, however, voice is way behind. A recent survey found that just 28 percent of businesses use voice in their workflows at all. This isn’t for lack of interest: The same survey said 85 percent of businesses plan to integrate voice within the next year. And while Alexa and Google Assistant dominate the consumer smart speaker market, businesses are looking very expectantly at Cortana, since many of them are already Microsoft customers.

Well, Microsoft just gave them something to look at. At the company’s Ignite conference in Florida, which begins today, Microsoft announced a new Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise, letting businesses take advantage of the digital assistant’s natural-language processing to create custom skills for their business.

“It’s allowing enterprises to build experiences that take advantage of the free-form aspect of ambient [computing],” Microsoft’s Cortana chief, Corporate Vice President Javier Soltero, explained to me in an interview in advance of the Ignite conference. “By allowing these enterprise workflows to be expressed through natural language or voice, interesting things start happening. Many of them were about filling in forms, but with the ability use natural language to ask questions and take action, you can converse about an activity.”

For example, a business could take the common act of putting in an IT request and make it a Cortana skill. For most larger businesses, an IT request is typically a tedious task, involving several steps just to create a ticket. But with Cortana involved, it could become as simple as invoking a voice command like, “Ask IT for help with my laptop,” which would not only ease the ticket creation, but also let a bot take over the conversation and determine if the user needs attention from a human.

Cortana can also simplify things like scheduling meetings with colleagues by coordinating times across multiple calendars.

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While those are fairly generic examples, the skills can get very specific. If your business is already using bots, the new Cortana Skill Set for Enterprise takes them to the next level by letting them leverage Cortana’s natural-language processing and Microsoft’s Azure back end. 

“We now have the ability for enterprises to take those bots and be able to, without a lot of difficulty, make them first-class Cortana skills,” Soltero said. “We can take, say, a customer-service bot that is specific to your enterprise and add the element of natural language and the ability to operate across multiple devices.”

Putting voice into the workplace changes the equation around security and privacy. Not only do businesses typically need enhanced security features, but there needs to be, from a user standpoint, a clear line between what data is for work and what is for personal. Cortana, after all, is a personal assistant as well as a workplace tool, and what data it can access and share will vary depending on the request and how the user is interacting with it.

“It’s one thing to build a way of interacting with these enterprise capabilities, it’s a whole other thing to have the level of control necessary to say, ‘These are the people who actually should have access,’” Soltero said.

When Cortana was brand new, Microsoft put forward a vision of Cortana fully integrated into a business’s toolkit — an AI-driven assistant that would have access to all the company’s data, able to leverage it securely to optimize the productivity of every worker at any time. It was a compelling picture, but it’s remained largely unfulfilled since then.

The new enterprise Skill Set is an essential step toward that goal, and there’s still reason to be optimistic. Although Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are eating up all the market share in the consumer space (and they both have growing enterprise plays), the aforementioned survey shows Cortana is top of mind to businesses considering adding voice.

That makes sense: Microsoft’s longstanding presence in enterprise gives it a platform advantage that Google and Amazon don’t have. Then again, Amazon’s and Google’s smart speakers give them all the mind share, and we saw how that played out with smartphones (right, BlackBerry?). Cracking the enterprise might be Cortana’s best play, but if the first question is always, “Do I know you?” can it really win the long game?

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