The last two years have seen artificial intelligence AI and automation hit the mainstream. Over the past 12 months artificial intelligence has been deployed in emerging economies, both by international businesses looking to expand into new markets, and by local organisations scaling up their operations in an agile, rapid, and cost-effective way that helps them to become far more competitive in the market. As governments and think tanks around the world continue to search for ways to ensure a more inclusive form of globalisation, which improves the lives of all citizens around the world intelligent automation and AI are set to play a critical role.
Redefining resourcing and delivery models
The early sceptical tone of much doomsday coverage about AI has matured into a more rounded evaluation of how we can navigate the change in employment structures all over the world to deliver widespread benefit using AI and automation. Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs 2018’ report shows that while AI will of course lead to some job displacement, it will actually deliver a significant net increase in jobs over the next ten years, most of which will be far more rewarding and fulfilling roles than those being replaced. Within many sectors, such as financial services and energy and utilities, adoption of RPA is already widespread, with organisations deploying the technology to streamline their back-office and call centre processes and to reduce costs.
Intelligent Automation (IA), which combines RPA with AI functionality, including capabilities such as natural language processing (NLP), is now enabling businesses to automate a far wider range of workplace processes, in a fast, effective and secure way. So automation is no longer just about cost or resource efficiency; instead digital labour becomes a strategic asset, a game changer for businesses. Financial services organisations can redefine work resourcing within their businesses through intelligent automation, allowing them to be more agile to respond to disruption, comply with ever-changing regulation, and also to innovate and pursue new opportunities that would otherwise be impossible with a traditional approach to resourcing.
We are seeing financial services businesses developing and launching new products and services that are conceived and built specifically to leverage digital labour as well as human labour. For example, we have seen examples of banks that are using this hybrid virtual workforce as a platform to expand their operations into new territories.
Opportunity for emerging economies
Intelligent automation helps companies in emerging economies to scale their operations in a fast, cost-effective, and agile way, meaning it provides a lower cost to serve customers and more efficient outcomes. Whereas previously, many businesses were restricted in their ability to expand by prohibitively expensive infrastructure costs (real estate, IT systems and so on), they can now deploy digital labour to enter new markets and develop new products and services. They do not need to invest in costly and complex IT systems or open up new local offices to enter a new market; instead they can simply resource their operations through digital labour, using a software-as-a-service model which allows them to be up and running in a matter of days, as opposed to large-scale infrastructure projects which can take months or years, and very rarely meet expectations anyway.
For example, a global wealth manager is using Thoughtonomy’s intelligent automation platform to automate their Know Your Customer (KYC) process in one of their emerging markets operations. The organisation operates in a highly regulated market and therefore has stringent requirements for on and offboarding clients. With limited in country resources, the organisation has turned to a virtual workforce to deliver significant operational, compliance, and efficiency benefits. Success in the first project will pave the way to replicating this approach to other regions across the world.
Additionally, a South African insurer is using a virtual workforce to automate the provision of competitive policy quotes and process claims. Both processes use a combination of virtual worker skills such as reading and extracting data from PDF documents and processing that data in multiple systems and applications. In both scenarios the businesses have seen significant benefits.
In fact, companies in emerging economies are actually beginning to enjoy a distinct advantage over established global players, who are often constrained by their legacy IT systems and are far slower to adapt to change and disruption in the market. Using intelligent automation, businesses in emerging economies, that rarely have the same IT and structural complexity as larger global players, can react more quickly to market conditions, be faster to innovate, and become better equipped to exploit new opportunities.
And while organisations in developed economies continue to struggle to implement their digital transformation strategies, those in emerging economies can leapfrog into the fourth industrial revolution, building digital-first, lean and agile businesses that are primed for the future. Secondly, with the adoption of intelligent automation, organisations can also navigate around the skills shortages that are becoming so debilitating in many emerging economies, particularly within the financial services industry. By automating the mundane, repetitive processes which are such a drain on time and motivation within a workforce, businesses can free up their best talent to focus on higher value activities, such as forging better relationships with customers and prospects and driving innovation.
Shaping a more inclusive global economy
At a broader, macro level, intelligent automation can enable economies and regions to re-invent their place within the global economy and compete in new ways. In South Africa, where there is a lot of demand for intelligent automation, it is striking how intelligent automation is presenting the economy with a unique opportunity to establish itself as a global centre of excellence for high-quality service delivery and customer experience, building on its existing reputation in this area.
Rather than competing on cost as an offshore destination, embarking on a race to the bottom in terms of cheap labour, regions such as Africa and Latin America can instead now forge a new identity as regions that provide first-rate customer experiences and the go-to-to places for setting up high quality, customer-centric business processes and functions. And as customer experience becomes the next big battleground for businesses, this will become a strong value proposition for businesses in the emerging markets.
Africa and other emerging economies can achieve such shifts and take their economies in new directions by deploying a hybrid workforce, where highly skilled people work alongside and optimise the scalable, multi-skilled resources that a virtual workforce provides. This creates the scope for a more equitable globalisation.
Terry Walby is founder and CEO of Thoughtonomy. Thoughtonomy is an intelligent automation company that offers a single platform combining Artificial Intelligence, robotic process automation and cloud deployment.