The BPO connection: Humans and machines

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RODERIC A. VIGUILLA

In 2015, Hanson Robotics mesmerized the world when it unveiled the Sophia robot. Since then, it has graced magazine covers, guested on television shows, spoken at various conventions, been honored by the United Nations’ Development Program, and received Saudi Arabian citizenship.

It is amazing, and somewhat scary, to think how fast information-technology developments come. Don’t misunderstand, though: this is not about a post-apocalyptic future run by robots. Instead, this is about how such developments impact one of the largest, labor-intensive industries today: the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.

This sector has played—is playing—a big role in how globalization tied the world’s industries together. It has provided solutions for corporations’ growing operating costs and, to some extent, helped lower unemployment rates in some countries.

The Philippines, in particular, grappled with double-digit unemployment rates in the 1980s to the early 1990s. But the country has come a long way since BPO investments were made. It was even dubbed the world’s BPO capital in 2010.


Employing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and accounting for a significant chunk of the country’s gross domestic product, it makes sense why we cannot simply take our eyes off BPOs.

Besides the projected slowdown in annual growth until 2022, BPOs are also facing unprecedented technological developments. From what seemed to be exclusive and expensive luxuries, the internet, mobile phones and other things digital are now integral to our lives. It now seems impossible to not go through your work routine without checking your email or even shopping using apps. Slowly, the human voices we used to hear are now replaced by machine-generated speeches of artificial intelligence (AI).

We are now at a crossroads; technological developments have brought us here. We now ask ourselves: Would technology replace us? Has our pursuit for technological perfection betrayed us? Would it cause even more unemployment—the very thing it tried to solve in the first place?

This may seem like a yes-or-no decision with serious consequences, but this is a little more complicated. Yes, the implications are large, but it really does not boil down to an either-or matter.

There is no stopping tech giants from developing products. This, however, does not automatically translate to replacements for the BPO industry, as these developments are still far too expensive for corporations. Development- and implementation-wise, it may not be cost-efficient to transfer the likes of contact centers and back-office services—the BPO arms that account for majority of its operations—to AI.

The industry itself was a solution to the growing costs of operations, thus, it seems logical that companies are unwilling to invest heavily in these technologies, given that it would really require huge capital.

This issue also needs to be seen from a customer-relations perspective. Back offices and contact centers focus on things that rely heavily on social interaction. Studies show that customers are more willing to talk to people than to machines about problems with products and services.

The problems that customers deal with are far too complex even for the most advanced machines to handle. Sure, robots may seem to gain more knowledge, but until the time they are able to deal with the plethora of people calling in—from the calm and composed to the unintelligibly hot-headed—then humans are still the best for that work.

The industry as a whole, however, is not exactly unprepared, either. BPOs are now investing in developing the very services they offer. Industries are now looking into higher-value services like knowledge process outsourcing, which involves market research, fraud analytics, actuarial services, among other.

Naturally, this would mean the employees involved must upgrade their skills. This won’t automatically change overnight, but they would gradually adapt. Just like the boom in information-technology-related courses to address technology’s exponential growth, we may soon witness educational restructuring to address this gap.

Along with India, the Philippines stands as proof of global offshore operations’ efficiency. Life is becoming more convenient with every mobile phone and app released. Communicating becomes easier and information becomes more accessible. But at the end of the day, we still look forward to talking to a fellow human being, with the aid of technologies, on the other end of the line.

Maybe it just boils down to changing perspectives. Technology is here to help, not to replace humans.

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Roderic A. Viguilla is an assurance director of Isla Lipana& Co./PwC Philippines. Email your comments and questions to markets@ph.pwc.com. This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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