Cortana for enterprise Teams has promise but faces hurdles

Microsoft has rebooted Cortana as the enterprise version of Alexa or Siri for Teams. The play is promising, but technical and privacy concerns mean its success is not yet certain.

Smart speakers built with virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa and others are all around us, providing us with the ability to perform tasks through voice commands. The convenience of ordering products, creating reminders or asking for help solving a sixth grade math problem using AI has proven to be a big win for consumers.

After pulling its own virtual assistant and AI out of the consumer market, Microsoft is betting it can score in the enterprise space by rolling out Cortana in Office 365 services and apps. In Teams, for example, Cortana now gives enterprise users the option of touch-free interaction with application functions.

This tight integration does seem to set Microsoft Teams apart from other collaboration platforms in the unified communications and collaboration market. But despite its appeal, the virtual assistant may face some speedbumps on the road to widespread adoption. It remains to be seen how effective Cortana will truly be in facilitating communication and collaboration in the enterprise.

Cortana business benefits

Cortana is a key differentiator for Microsoft Teams, setting it apart from other collaboration platforms like Slack, Webex and others that don't support voice commands for common business tasks. Cortana lets enterprise users make calls, join meetings and share content -- and not just on the Teams mobile app for iOS or Android. The company has also extended the use of the voice assistant to Teams Rooms and voice-controlled smart displays, enabling a touchless experience even in conference room settings. 

Screenshot showing Cortana in Teams mobile app
As part of its retooling of Cortana for enterprise use, Microsoft has made the virtual assistant available to Teams mobile app users.

Voice commands that Cortana enterprise users can give in Teams include the following:

  • "Cortana, what is on my calendar today?"
  • "Cortana, share monthly KPI data with Janet."
  • "Cortana, call John."
  • "Cortana, add Janet to this meeting."
  • "Cortana, send a message to my next meeting that I am running a few minutes behind and they should start without me."
  • "Cortana, message John and let him know that I did receive the report."

These and other examples highlight how Microsoft has combined its AI capabilities, virtual assistant and popular Office 365 services to deliver a new way of interacting with calendars, meetings and apps.

Microsoft has also been working with vendors such as Yealink and Epos to deliver intelligent speakers that provide additional Teams functionality. As part of Teams Rooms devices, these smart speakers use Cortana to support voice commands. More importantly, they also enable live meeting transcription, with the ability to identify different individuals' voices and tag transcripts accordingly. 

To ensure IT administrators can control access to Cortana features, Microsoft offers a way to define access policies using PowerShell. This makes it possible to manage who can get voice assistant functionality at the user level or tenant level.

Cortana adoption hurdles

Virtual assistants often have problems dealing with background noise or understanding certain users. It remains to be seen if Cortana will face these kinds of technical challenges in the enterprise collaboration space as more Teams users try the technology.

Cortana is a key differentiator for Teams, setting it apart from other collaboration platforms.

More significantly, Cortana's ability to recognize users, transcribe their words and track their unique voice signatures could raise privacy issues. IT administrators have questions about when and how the virtual assistant listens to, recognizes and records speech. Another likely IT worry is the possibility that unauthorized users could interact verbally with corporate apps or smart displays using Cortana.  

Voice-enabled apps could provide a new level of convenience in business settings, especially if they can properly process complex commands. By adding Cortana to Teams, Microsoft opens the door to a new experience for enterprise users and could change the way they do business. But for many IT administrators, security and privacy concerns remain.

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