AI VS BPO

Of robots and outsourcing

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ARTIFICIAL intelligence (AI) should not be feared as its emergence in the fast-growing BPO, or business process outsourcing, sector would lead to more jobs, particularly in call centers.

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Amid reports about projected job losses, Kaizen Private Equity founder and managing partner Sandeep Aneja said that the rise of the fourth industrial revolution would be the “coming together of many technologies that exist today, but which are becoming cheaper, more available, and more able to change our lives.” With the new industrial revolution, he stressed, services and goods are projected to be much cheaper, making these affordable to a lot of consumers.

“The number of jobs that will come to the Philippines will largely increase, potentially, because the number of consumers of goods and services—like airlines, laptops, computers—would grow, and because the Philippines’ [BPO sector] receives calls, this will [expand]as things become more affordable in the US, UK, or elsewhere,” Aneja said last September during an Asian Development Bank (ADB) forum.

He explained that an increase in the number of consumers means the BPO sector having more calls relating to buyers’ complaints and concerns. “So the volume of calls should dramatically increase,” he told The Manila Times after the forum. “If that occurs, the Philippines is OK.”

While he acknowledged that there would be possible job losses from AI take-up, Aneja said those jobs would “come back” as humans will eventually learn to excel and upgrade their skills in order to work alongside the advancements of technologies. “Humans will learn and rethink, and a lot of the jobs will not be done by technologies,” he explained. “They’ll come clear in the short term … but in the long run, human beings will be able to love technologies, to create more opportunities.”

Aneja, whose Kaizen is Asia’s first education-driven private equity fund, said the tasks of BPO employees could be categorized as competitive or noncompetitive. Competitive tasks, he explained, can be done by machines much more rapidly. “Therefore, jobs which are more competitive in nature will be taken care of by AI, by robots,” he stressed. “The noncompetitive tasks … like creating plans, etc., will not be taken over by the technologies anytime soon.”

He described most BPO jobs as having a “component competitiveness” in them. For instance, imagine a situation where five BPO employees will be replaced by two robots and three BPO staff members. “The three employees will manage the exemptions from the competitive tasks much more thoughtfully,” he theorized.

Jojo Uligan, president of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), said: “I don’t think we should focus the debate on whether jobs will be lost with the emergence of [new]technologies. Jobs are being transformed and our focus now is the investment needed in upskilling our people.”

Uligan said the association would continue to cooperate with the government to create opportunities in upgrading the skills of the BPO talent pool so they can adapt to the challenges brought about by the latest technologies.

As for the government, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez has said the industry needed to explore innovation and that training for employees were needed to make these technologies work for them. “There is a need to strengthen the curriculum toward computer science, engineering, data science, and AI application design, among other [academic disciplines],” he emphasized. This effort must be inclusive, as disqualified BPO applicants and retrenched call-center agents must be retrained on AI application development that will eventually enable them to get jobs.

Aneja echoed Lopez, saying the government must understand that it has to create new learning opportunities for those of working age. “It’s also good that there is a K-to-12 in the country as it brings better quality learning for students,” he said, so that the schools can produce graduates who can lead and think, not just those who end up as administrators and followers. “That’s the biggest challenge for the government—changing the curriculum, bringing the industry into the curriculum design, bringing practitioners into the delivery of information and learning, and involving students in project learning and planning, as opposed to sitting and listening in the class” he added.

As for the employees, Aneja said, they should not just be working and spending all their spare time relaxing. “In between these, there are opportunities to learn and be more creative and be a better member of society by being lifelong learners,” he added. “So employees should always question how they could acquire new skills, which should be a high-level skill or the thinking skill. This would give them better job security or assurance.”

The CCAP, which groups the country’s call-center companies, remains optimistic that with the new opportunities emerging from latest technologies, the BPO sector in the Philippines will continue “to be a leader in delivering outstanding experience to its customers around the globe.”

Since the Filipinos enjoy the reputation of being the top pick of global outsourcing companies, CCAP chairman Benedict Hernandez said, “[W]e are determined to keep that reputation using the positive implications of these new technologies in delivering our most sought-after brand of providing nothing but the best customer experience.” The IT and business process management (IT-BPM) industry has grown significantly in the last several years, both in revenues and employees.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas has predicted that by 2017, the IT-BPM industry would be the Philippines’ largest source of income. From 525,000 employees in 2010 and $8.9 billion in revenues to an expected 1.3 million jobs and over $25 billion in revenues for 2016, the IT-BPM is, to date, the country’s most lucrative and fastest-growing industry.

If the CCAP forecast is to be followed, the industry will add about 73,000 jobs per year and by 2022 will grow to almost 1.2 million from 751,000 in 2016. Uligan said: “We predict about an 8-percent annual growth until 2022, which takes our revenues from $12.8 billion last year to $20.4 billion in 2022.”

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