I’ve worked with a number of large companies, both as an IT consultant and now in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) space, and the challenge remains the same: find new ways to generate year-over-year savings. And while BPO has been incredibly effective in driving out costs and delivering new business value, organizations are still looking for that next level of savings.
The rise of Artificial Intelligence
Although Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not really new, it has been steadily evolving with major improvements over the last few years. Today we are surrounded by AI-driven technologies which are often quite subtly trying to help or influence us, for example, suggesting what we might want to read, watch, hear, or purchase.
But let’s look at an Accounts Payable (AP) example: AI in the form of supervised machine learning can today be used with scanned invoices where a human indexer initially ‘teaches’ the tool where to find important data such as an invoice number, gross amount, etc., in a simple point-and click fashion. The tool then recognizes certain patterns and after a handful of invoice examples per supplier, is able to find the respective data on its own, even if fields have moved on a page, for example, or the total amount shifts to the 2nd or 3rd page.
After a short training phase, the AI-enabled tool is able to perform the data extraction completely on its own and only brings invoices to the attention of a human where it is not confident enough, be it for new suppliers, bad scan quality, hand-written content, etc. These issues can be directly corrected in the tool and the indexing team changes their role to that of a pure supervisor, saving a lot of time per invoice. The tool is able to perform its recognition within seconds, not minutes, even in the case where supervision is required and the AI tool triggers a quick help request to its human colleague, i.e., as an exception from the regular fully automated process. It is the skill of the exception management teams that truly optimize these learning-based approaches.
A hybrid approach
Before any science fiction-type intelligent systems have a chance to take over all our work (and potentially the world) the right solution for most business scenarios at the moment is a hybrid one: use automation and artificial intelligence where it can be used best, e.g., in high volume, low creativity tasks, and add as much human power as required to deliver the most efficient yet flexible process that we can.
What this means in practice is that areas for automation and use of AI systems need to be clearly identified, so that successful implementations based on proper requirements gathering and feasibility decisions can be performed. So we need to identify areas where the combination of humans and their specific expertise together with the artificial workforce can leverage the best results. Naturally larger BPO and consulting companies will be leading implementations in this area due to their early experience and size of operations in this space.
A positive impact
We expect that many repetitive tasks that are currently performed by people, especially in BPOs, will be moved to robotic colleagues in the near future. However, we anticipate that these employees will have gained a wealth of experience to perform higher value tasks with the technology freeing up time to deliver. This will improve their job satisfaction and positively impact the client experience.
From a BPO as well as from a human workforce perspective, it makes a lot of sense to continue exploring areas where AI can be used to enable new ways of working. The area of semi-structured content, like invoices, is only the start and processing unstructured content is where it will get really interesting this year.
From a customer perspective, partnering with a BPO provider to increase the automation rate comes with a number of benefits. It will not only increase satisfaction of end-customers in terms of turn-around time, but will also reduce overall cost as new technologies can now be applied in all major processes.
There are interesting times ahead of us!
There has been a lot of talk about AI in recent years but many organizations have yet to implement it within their business processes. I expect this to change significantly in 2016, particularly as BPO providers integrate it into the business process transformation solutions they deliver for clients.