Friday, January 13, 2012

’Hands-Free, Eyes-Free Voice Productivity’: For Many a Hollow Promise

by Bob Bova

For many IT professionals responsible for supporting large mobile workforces at Fortune Class companies, the promise of ‘hands-free, eyes-free voice productivity’ is quite possibly, with few exceptions, the most disappointing mobile and wireless technology in the last decade. Many have either ignored it, been sucker-punched by it, under-whelmed by the actual functionality and often shocked by the investment required to deploy it. Even we have stopped using the ‘hands-free, eyes-free’ moniker. It has become a hollow, throw-away expression to those seriously evaluating productivity solutions.

In the world of voice (or speech recognition) technologies, what does ‘hands-free, eyes-free really mean? Because of excessive hype and poor performance, it means limited and often unreliable voice functionality…yet its declared a productivity solution. It’s like mobile hardware manufactures charging you $2K for a mobile computer with only 2 F-Keys and 10 alphabet keys.

Voice has been credited for what would be consider fairly simplistic mobile functions. Say you’re a director of store operations for 5 retail locations in your district. On your mobile device, you use a voice command to search and call up a sales performance report for your Poughkeepsie location from your back-end database. Boom. There it is. OMG! ‘Scotty you’re a miracle worker! But still you have to stop, look down and read the report. Is voice search ‘technically’ hands-free, eyes-free? I suppose…technically.

Are simple voice functions like ‘go to my documents’ and voice search, real productivity accelerators? If so, we all owe an apology to Motorola Solutions, Intermec, LXE, Psion Teklogix and the other enterprise mobile computer manufacturers. They market powerful mobile devices used for a myriad of complex work directed applications; i.e., warehouse management, mobile inspections, dispatch & delivery, mobile maintenance and repair. These devices are often used by very capable multi-tasking workforces, each worker pivoting from application to application, using the device to guide them through reporting, business process flow, specific work dynamics and truly provide a level of productivity unthinkable even 4 years ago. That’s productivity. Voice search? Not so much.

Now let's raise the ante. If you’re a police officer, 1st responder, electric, a warfighter, what voice capabilities would make you genuinely‘hands-free-eyes free’?

To serve as a legitimate productivity alternative voice technology must mean complete voice collaboration between you and your existing mobile applications. And that means: 1) voice driven navigation for all application and device commands; 2) the ability to collect heavy data needed for mobile complex transactions and reporting, and; 3) it must mean that your mobile computer should be able to talk to you, voice reporting or alerting you with the information you want or need, when and where you need it. And all these capabilities need to be easily adaptable to all mobile workforce applications, not just for warehouse workers, but anyone in the field dependent on industry grade mobile apps.

Now, if Scotty can build you a voice solution that can do that…then genuine voice productivity can follow in the foot-steps of today's mainstream mobile and wireless productivity technologies.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

WMS Voice and Voice Picking: Only 8% Market Penetration?

by Bob Bova

In the 2011 study ‘Voice Technology in the Supply Chain 2011’ developed by Tern Systems, Inc., it was confirmed that only 8% of the potential WMS market that could be taking advantage of voice directed applications were actually doing so. Why is voice data collection a ‘second cousin’ to barcode scanning, RFID and other ADC technologies? The pioneering voice technologies which brought voice to the warehouse in the early 90’s proved the productivity metric for WMS voice (especially for voice picking and cycle counting). So why has such a small segment of the WMS market embraced voice technology… what’s the other 92% of market worried about?

Our company markets our voice solution to scores of supply chain professionals, that manage a variety of mobile applications that support mobile workforces serving both Fortune Class and SMB markets. When we ask them why they have resisted the adoption voice productivity solutions, they tend to categorize their objections in four areas; business risk, relative performance of existing systems, complexity, and costs.

One customer said, ‘I have an existing high performance WMS system, my small warehouse team is knocking out 22+ million pieces a year. I just couldn’t justify, the change in my business processes and the costly complex server-integration from the other vendors in exchange the bump in promised productivity. Another customer said “ I want to implement productivity improvements quickly, when and where we determine it works best, the other guys didn’t offer me that…they’re implementations are simply too complex, and didn’t provide the flexibility we needed.”

The complexity of legacy voice systems over the last 20 years have been costly, resource intensive endeavors, in most instances leaving the small and medium size business (SMBs) out of the picture. Even larger companies have blanched at the inflexible implementations that require substantial investment and 12-18 months for deployment and training.

We don’t own the crystal ball on all things regarding the WMS market…but my guess is the 92% of the non-voice market have resisted voice productivity for a combination of these and other reasons.

It has always been our goal to alter the resistance to voice productivity, not only in WMS marketplace, but for mobile applications throughout the supply chain…from mobile field services, mobile inspections, dispatch and delivery, mobile maintenance and repair, wherever mobile workforces are deployed. IT professionals are managing huge inventories of custom built and commercial applications, supporting ‘boots-on-the-ground’ mobile workforces. The voice productivity metric proved in the warehouse market, is viable for the entire supply chain.

Like other ADC technologies, voice technology should be easy-to-adopt and applicable across the supply chain, an additive benefit not a huge rip and replace money pit. It should not be relegated to a specific terminal emulation or hardware platform; voice should be flexible, dependable and reliable on all software presentation products (terminal emulation flavors, .NET. browsers) and all types of mobile hardware (smartphones, bar code scanners, tablets, laptops, PC’s etc). The evolution of device based voice technology now empowers business operations to get real work done faster and more efficiently, to bolster profitability.

Voice can now be embraced as a strategic direction for enterprise wide mobile applications, providing the operations teams with new incremental productivity, while providing the IT departments the assurance of ease of integration, implementation, use and management.