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BPO agents to keep jobs despite the rise of robots

An executive of one of the largest business process outsourcing groups in the Philippines sees an increasing use of artificial intelligence, machines and robots by businesses this year, but he says customer support professionals are here to stay.

Virtual assistants with AI capability such as iPhone’s Siri, Android’s Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo (Alexa) are not likely to replace BPO professionals anytime soon, according to John Paul Palpallatoc, a senior executive at Accenture.

This statement provides reassurance to the 373,000 people employed by Accenture across 120 countries, including 45,000 in the Philippines.  Accenture operates 23 facilities in the Philippines, including 18 in Metro Manila, four in Cebu and one in San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte.  It is considered the largest third-party non-voice provider in the Philippine BPO industry and a hall of fame awardee as an outstanding employer.

Accenture managing director for digital group  John Paul Palpallatoc

“Robots may displace people in the sense they are doing some menial tasks, but people will be doing the high level tasks in customer engagement.  It is not really a replacement, but an addition, complementary of the tasks that we have,” says Palpallatoc.

Palpallatoc is the managing director and digital group lead at Accenture, which he has served for more than 27 years.  Accenture, a US-based company which established its presence in the Philippines as early as 1985, is a leading global professional services organization, which provides services and solutions in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations. Its clients include 89 of the Fortune Global 100 and more than three-quarters of the Fortune Global 500.

Palpallatoc has a crucial role as the global delivery network mobility capability lead.  As head of Accenture’s digital group, he has seen rapid changes in technology over the past few years.  “The acceleration and speed of technology changes are becoming more rapid. Some of the companies are having a digital culture shock, because there are a lot of changes that are happening at this time.  You talk about mobile apps, internet of things, digital, cloud, security and other things,” he says in a news briefing at Accenture’s facility at Robinsons Cybergate Tower 1 in Mandaluyong City.

Accenture presented its “Technology Vision 2016” report, based on interviews with 3,100 business leaders and IT executives around the world. “The theme this year is ‘people first’.  We believe that companies and enterprises that put people as prime factor in this digital age will be the one that will be winning,” says Palpallatoc.

He says among the latest technologies are cloud, internet of things and smart machines.  “Another thing we are seeing is artificial intelligence.  In the US alone, the use of artificial intelligence has increased 20 fold,” he says.

“In 2013, we have seen the impact of digital in business.  Every business is a digital business.  In that particular year, we have seen startups disrupting a lot of companies.  Startups like Google, Apple, Facebook are disrupting,” says Palpallatoc.

“In 2014, a lot of companies were using digital to disrupt their own industries as well. From digitally disrupted, they became digital disrupter.  In 2015, we said change was stretching boundaries, moving from ‘me economy or my company only’ to digital ecosystem or ‘we economy’,” he says.  

“In 2016, we are focusing more on people as well,” he says. “Based on the research we have done, we believe that the enterprises and the companies that focus on people and enable them to make use the digital wave will be successful.”

The Accenture report shows that about 33 percent of people surveyed are seeing the impact of digital technologies already.  About 86 percent of those surveyed also mention that the speed and the pace of technology changes are going to accelerate more in the next three years. 

Palpallatoc says Accenture believes that five technology trends will impact companies and enterprises in the next three to five years.  These five trends are intelligent automation, liquid workforce, platform economy, predictable disruption and digital trust.

He says companies now have new recruits, in the forms of robots, machines and artificial intelligence.  “Powered by artificial intelligence, powered by robotics, powered by augmented reality, leaders will embrace automation.  They will use the capacity, capability of machines to do that we are doing as humans,” he says.

The Accenture survey reveals that 70 percent of respondents acknowledge increased AI-related technology investments compared to two years ago, while 55 percent plan on using machine learning and embedded AI solutions.

Palpallatoc says a restaurant in Singapore now uses drones to bring food and dishes in and out of the kitchen, so that waiters can focus more on customer engagement.  In Japan, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ uses robots as receptionists.

He says Accenture itself has launched myWizard as a virtual assistant.  “These artificial avatars are helping us in managing our projects,” he says.

Palpallatoc says artificial intelligence is becoming a major area of interest among businesses.  “Most companies are investing in artificial intelligence right now,” he says.

The next trend is liquid workforce, which refers to flexible and adaptable employees. By exploiting technology to enable workforce transformation, leading companies will create highly adaptable and change-ready environments that are able to meet today’s dynamic digital demands, he says. 

He says Accenture invests heavily in training and developing talents.  Palpallatoc says in terms of non-voice services, Accenture is the largest BPO company in the Philippines. “We invest heavily in terms of having IT skills, new technology.  We spend approximately $800 million annually in terms of training,” he says.

Another trend is platform economy, which refers to the rise of platform-based business models such as the likes of Grab, Wunder, Uber and Lazada in the Philippines. “Platform is a way for companies to get more growth and innovation,” he says.

About 81 percent of the survey respondents agree that platform-based business models will become part of their organization’s core growth strategy within three years.

Meanwhile, predictable disruption refers to the foundation for the next wave of disruption. Companies are already significantly or moderately experiencing ecosystem disruption, with 81 percent of survey respondents indicating that they are seeing this in their industry.

Palpallatoc says the fifth trend is digital trust, which is a cornerstone of the digital economy.  He says businesses must focus on digital ethics as a core strategy.

“In summary, the companies that focus on people first as the approach will become the leader of the industry.  The reason why this is important is because companies are now having a digital culture shock given the amount of changes that we are seeing.  That is the reason why digital and people should work together,” he says.

Palpallatoc says AI, machines or robots are designed as tools to help people become more effective in their jobs, and not to replace them.  “We should look at technology as complementary and additional helper for us to enable our people.  It is people first,” he says.  

He says no Accenture employee has lost his or her job to AI, robots or machines so far. However, he says to thrive in this new age, people need to change or rotate to different skills.  “You need to be adaptable and learn new technology,” he says.

“My point is every business is a digital business. Businesses need to have a website, a mobile application to be present.  If you are not going digital, I am pretty sure your competitor will be adopting digital technology.  Technology pace is getting quicker.  If you don’t innovate, you probably know what happened to Nokia and Kodak. They were disrupted because they were not innovating,” he says.

In the BPO sector, “we need to evolve to serve our clients,” says Palpallatoc.  “What we need as a country is to be ready and be prepared for right skills.   We need to rotate to new technologies—mobile apps, analytics, artificial intelligence, etc.” 

He says companies that equip employees, partners and consumers with new skills can fully capitalize on innovations. Companies that embrace digital technology can empower their workforce to continuously learn new skills to do more with technology and generate bigger and better business results.

Palpallatoc says these changes are already happening and will become more pervasive in the coming years.  “The technology vision is not a revolution; it is an evolution,” he says.

Topics: Accenture , John Paul Palpallatoc , business process outsourcing , BPO , artificial intelligence , machines , robots , iPhone’s Siri , Android’s Google Now , Microsoft’s Cortana , Amazon’s Echo (Alexa)
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