Feature: Why Britain must use AI to spark a new productivity boom
SAP S/4HANA's Darren Roos on why AI matters to UK businesses.
When the government releases a 78-page report on how to grow the UK’s artificial intelligence (AI) industry, you can bet this technology is about to have its day.
The MPs behind this independent review certainly seem to think so.
Culture Secretary Karen Bradley suggested AI has "the potential to improve our everyday lives", while Business Secretary Greg Clark praised the "huge social and economic benefits its use can bring".
More than that: they want to make Britain the world leader in AI and add £630bn to the UK economy.
It’s an ambitious vision, and one I absolutely welcome. With UK productivity having remained largely stagnant since the 2008 financial crisis, we need to start innovating in areas like AI to create bold new ways of working.
But to make this work we need more than government reports. The only way to fully realise the potential of this technology is through a joint effort between business, academia and government.
Why AI matters to UK business
The current pace of technological change is incredible. A decade ago smartphones were only just beginning to take off – now we use them more than desktop computers. Entering an intelligent virtual world is no longer the preserve of science fiction. We generate more data in a day than we used to produce in a decade.
And the fact we’re even talking about AI in the context of everyday business use is incredible when you consider where it was even five short years ago – it’s jumped from something people talk about at conferences to a serious contender for investment.
But as technology transforms the world around us, customer expectations change with it. In PwC’s latest Global Operations Survey 63% of operations leaders said understanding what customers value is a challenge.
The truth is, no matter how many brilliant people you employ, the human mind alone can’t even begin to keep up with the speed at which things are moving.
That’s where AI can really make a difference. By making connections much more quickly than we can, it can empower us to learn and accomplish things at a fraction of the speed we previously could – literally making the impossible achievable.
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Some of the most forward-thinking companies on the planet have already realised this and taken steps to make AI a fundamental part of the way they operate.
Earlier this year Google announced it was switching from ‘mobile-first’ to ‘AI-first’ – a major conceptual shift for the brand, with CEO Sundar Pichai suggesting advanced AI functions like instant language translation could be available within a few years.
But the real value of AI for businesses lies in its power to make sense of data in a way humans alone will never manage. And as we’ve seen in the past few years, data – or more specifically how you manage and apply it – is the most effective way to gain the edge over your competitors.
The Economist recently went as far as to say data is giving rise to a whole new economy, suggesting it is as important to this century as oil was to the last, creating new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies and new politics.
If data really is going to shape the world in the coming decades, those that can make sense of it now could be setting themselves up for a very bright future indeed. It’s also worth noting that while AI can absolutely help you reduce operational costs by automating manual tasks, this isn’t about replacing people with artificial minds – Gartner predicts AI will be a ‘net job creator’ in the long run.
Technology can raise the limit of what your employees can collectively achieve. And you do that by freeing them from repetitive tasks and enabling them to focus on things that bring more value to them and your business.
Turning talk into action
The government’s report focuses on four key areas:
• Developing AI skills
• Increasing AI uptake
• Improving data use and availability
• Building on AI research
All these points are music to my ears, and if the above list quickly comes to fruition I’m confident the UK will have a good chance of leading the way globally on this technology.
Reading through the report, words and phrases like ‘carefully considered’, ‘discussions’ and ‘potential deal’ do concern me.
I hope the promising content that came out of this much-needed review will turn into the kind of action the UK economy needs. Not next year or next month, but now. Otherwise Britain risks being left behind as other developed nations race ahead with innovation. And now more than ever we need to secure and increase the UK’s competitiveness on the global stage.
At SAP we’ve already taken action, by building a truly intelligent enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution in the cloud. Using machine learning or AI, we can deliver predictive insights and automate processes across a business, helping organisations free up their employees to focus on innovation and growth in a competitive environment. This kind of automation is particularly vital for the finance function, bringing them closer to ‘lights-out’ operations, and allowing them to focus on strategic growth for their organisations.
AI or machine learning has the potential to directly support the success and growth of UK businesses. The future of our economy depends on us getting this right and the time to embrace it is now.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”