Workplace digitisation is nothing new; we can trace its history all the way back to the time when the commercial production of computers started, and keyboards and monitors started replacing pen and paper on our desks, writes Anoop Tiwari, Corporate Vice President and Global Head – Digital Process Operations, HCL Technologies.
Yet while digitisation was initially seen as a value-adding proposition, concerns around automation soon became apparent due to advancements in computing technology. While this digital disruption did render a substantial fraction of the workforce redundant at the local level, it also paved the way for the globalisation of transformational services. Even today, the balance between digital innovations and transformational services continues to have elements of both opportunity and disruption.
At a glance, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) market is in rude health. Some reports size the market up at $344 billion, so operation services will likely remain the path of choice for companies looking to achieve operational efficiency and cost reduction. But the role of service providers will begin to change as technological advancements like robotic process automation (RPA) are already starting to deliver similar cost savings as outsourcing programmes might. Enterprises of all sizes are increasingly incorporating automated responding machines, virtual bots, and similar technologies that are redefining digital process operations practices.
In other words, it’s no exaggeration to say that the days where service providers were mere problem-solving cost-savers is coming to an end. Emerging technologies enable organisations to carry out a lot of repetitive work in-house and even withdraw some of their operational functions. It has therefore become vital for digital process operations to redefine their value proposition.
The R&D Imperative
Globalisation was a win-win scenario for every sector and market. On the one hand, many organisations saw the opportunity to reduce OPEX by taking a chunk of their functions offshore, on the other, a slew of enterprises emerged to cater to this demand. But ever since, Operation services have stuck to the original scheme of service provision and have done little to reinvent their offerings; this is a problem for their customers, who are now increasingly making innovation a part of outsourcing contracts.
Competition is intensifying with every passing year as more individuals and enterprises start to embrace digitisation. Amid this evolving business environment, outsourcing organisations are looking for service partners rather than service providers. Companies are showing an increasing preference for agencies that can complement their capabilities and play a supporting role in their journey through continuous digital transformation. It follows that BPOs are now expected to be proactive on the R&D front, and to build centres and teams of excellence rather than just fulfilling the processes specified in the contract.
The BPO landscape has undergone a huge shift since the emergence of RPA, machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), and the Internet of Things (IoT). But BPOs and their clients continue to base their relationship on their age-old terms of engagement. The service methodology that was adopted by offshore agencies when these technologies were non-existent or just concepts has little bearing on clients’ needs today. With the RPA market estimated to exceed $4 billion by 2022 and 85 percent of all customer support communications expected to be conducted without human representatives by 2020, the time to transform is running out for services organizations.
Much like globalisation initially seemed a threat before enterprises began to use it to their advantage, outsourcing service providers need to harness emerging technologies to redefine their service approach. In this regard, the cultural shift from ‘meeting the client expectation’ to ‘exceeding the client expectation’ is essential for service providers to remain the preferred choice for digital process operations. Customer-centricity has to be at the heart of everything service providers do. The sooner service provider companies develop a strategy for proactively onboarding new technologies and delivering pre-emptive services, the better their chances will be to emerge as a ‘service partner’ in the future.
The Human-Skills Factor
It cannot be denied that humans aren’t as accurate or efficient as machines can be. At the same time, however, even cutting-edge technologies such as AI still need to be trained before being put to use. All advanced automation solutions available today are in their infancy, far from being able to think and act as humans do – which is a crucial aspect of the offshore delivery process. That said, outsourcing service providers are already facing a skills crisis as their workforces lack specialists who can lead the digital transition hands-on. For instance, if virtual bots are deployed for outsourced services, human experts will be required to train these bots to execute specific tasks. So, service providers need to take the driving seat and steer digitisation to their advantage rather than being driven by it. They must invest in training their existing professionals and focus on hiring domain experts to achieve the level of specialisation their clients want them to exhibit.
The human significance and relevance will prevail in the service amid the incessant digital technology-driven disruptions. Despite plenty of hype around the ‘rise of the robots’, no study has ever claimed that humans won’t have a role in the future workplace. While digital transformation will continue to alter the way that services are delivered, the human role will simply evolve, rather than disappear.