This article is part of CMO.com’s March/April series about emerging technology. Click here for more.
Don’t confuse the replacement of duties with the replacement of jobs: It’s an important point when it comes to the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. Not only does the emerging technology promise to free employees of their more mundane responsibilities, it also signals new opportunities for them to learn new skills.
Accenture’s delivery-centre operation in India–where thousands of employees have not only kept their jobs, but have been reskilled as part of an AI-driven transformation–is a true example.
“We don’t see it replacing jobs–we see it replacing tasks,” said Amit Bansal, Accenture’s APAC analytics and artificial intelligence delivery lead.
Bansal, who has been with the global professional services company for two-and-a-half years, has played a key part in spearheading Accenture’s rebrand as an applied intelligence business, both in its client services and internal operations. Giving employees new skills has been a key part of this effort.
“Think through what you want to automate, then think about the human side. It’s not about changing ‘Fred’s’ job. It’s what does Fred do that you can take out and make more efficient?” Bansal told CMO.com. “Once you’ve figured that out, then you just think about the new skill you need to give Fred so he can do something else for you in that situation.”
Replacing The Task
A 2016 Accenture research report found managers in emerging economies appeared far more likely to embrace artificial intelligence than their counterparts in developed economies. So it’s hardly a surprise to see AI use cases coming out of countries such as India.
The reskilled employees in India work for Accenture’s BPO division, a resource for companies looking for a cost-effective way to outsource some of their more rudimentary tasks–for example, mortgage-form processing from different banks around the world.
“When you or I are applying for a bank loan, we fill out a form. Whether it’s an online or a handwritten form, it gets sent to whomever is doing process apps for the bank–usually somebody sitting in India or the Philippines reading what you’ve written and typing it into a system so it can be processed,” Bansal said.
Accenture recognised that for these employees, data entry was a repetitive and mundane task that consequently increased the likelihood of human error.
By automating these tasks, Bansal said, employees were upskilled into other business processes and value-added steps in the process, depending on where client demand is coming from.
“Having people do that data-entry work is not really fulfilling for them, so we automate that process with image technology or robotic technology that actually reads those documents and fills the steps out,” he explained. “Then these people can do the next layer of the process, which is actually assessing the documents,” he explained.
Accenture’s AI transformation has also spurred the creation of entirely new roles within the organisation. “We created a new job category and trained some employees to be ‘knowledge engineers.’ These are live agents who provide customer service to any customers whose queries could not be fully resolved by the virtual agent or automation robot,” Bansal said.
When it comes to the practicalities, Accenture’s approach is “to firstly get our employees conversant in the new skill or task, then put them through a program of shadowing and learning, either on the job or by doing small contained pilots,” he said. “Over time the employees move from conversant, to proficient, to experts.”
Employee reaction has been positive, Bansal added. Employees are comfortable in the knowledge that their jobs aren’t going to disappear. Rather, they’ll just have other things to do.
The Value Of Reskilling
Despite how heavily we’ve come to rely on technology in the workplace, you’d be hard-pressed to find executives who’d say that people don’t remain at the core of their businesses. And for good reason. A business that focuses on building strong internal teams and fostering great client relationships is more likely to succeed in a competitive landscape, Bansal said.
“I actually advise our clients that when you are thinking about automation, don’t think about cost takeout. It’s not about that,” he said. “You need to think through ... how are you going to retrain people? Reskill them because suddenly now you can do more with the same number of people.”
That, in turn, “will give my clients a better and more efficient service,” Bansal said.
If there’s something to be learned from the Accenture experience, it’s not to be afraid of responsible AI, he added. It’s about making sure what you’re building is compatible with the people who make your business thrive.
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