How artificial intelligence can help fix stagnant UK productivity.

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It is becoming increasingly clear that the UK economy has suffered from a skills shortage. While there may have been plenty of debate surrounding the topic, politicians should be able to agree on the simple fact that very few practical solutions have been offered.

Many sectors ranging from healthcare to hospitality and education have hundreds of thousands of unfilled vacancies. They are not alone. In offices up and down the country, knowledge workers, once the ‚Äėjobs of the future‚Äô are in short supply. In truth, many of these jobs are not career-defining roles which will attract the latest generation of job seekers. Instead many end up being little more than form-filling or form-checking to process literally thousands of documents.

These are no jobs for the intelligent and ambitious. For a while, they were helped by what was arguably one of the biggest work-related inventions of the previous century, the computer. Yet in the 21st century, to allow workers to shed these repetitive and boring tasks off of their daily to-do lists, not the humble PC, not even the mighty smartphone is enough. It requires a technology that will define the next 50 years in office work; Artificial Intelligence.

Where did it all go wrong?

Before laying out how Artificial Intelligence can help us build a new way of working, it is perhaps best to go back and understand what is going wrong with office work today. As organisations digitised their processes from the supply chain to manufacturing plant, from e-commerce shopfront to web screen, they missed out on a large tranche of ‚Äėback office‚Äô tasks. Behind much of the seemingly smooth delivery of today‚Äôs web-enabled health and legal advice, insurance quotes, goods returns and customer service provision, an army of humans provided the glue,
using their analytical skills
and judgement.

This forgotten army of white-collar workers is demonstrably unhappy. Many are considering leaving their current jobs: A recent study found that 41% are looking to move laterally within their organisation and, alarmingly, 54% are on the job search outside it. Retraining their replacements is seen by many executives as just a ‚Äėcost of doing business. In reality, it is a heavyweight price to pay, a drag on profits and a depressing reality for talent which could have been redeployed and added value elsewhere in
the organisation.

The way forward

The great news is that repetitive analytic work is exactly what Artificial Intelligence loves. If one can combine the best of the indefatigable computing power of today’s cloud computing with smart and motivated humans, in a single Work Execution System, businesses will get the best of both worlds. Businesses will see higher volumes of task-completed and higher quality due to the lack of human error. And that’s not all: by redeploying humans to make judgement calls on the inevitable exceptions and variations in a large process volume, they keep the innovation and creativity unique to people, without killing their spirit.

Embracing the Work Execution System; a combination of Artificial Intelligence and automation products will modernise the back office. By providing a single platform, it augments the experience of the workforce by providing ‚ÄėDigital Assistants‚Äô to each employee. These bots are programmed by each worker, helping them to improve their own job. The result is they gain new skills while removing the tedious parts of their job that nobody wants to actually do.

This digital/human hybrid workforce, though, does come with some management challenges. Firstly putting in place the technology requires a strong vision which sees where Work Execution Gaps exist. Nowadays, optical character recognition (OCR), Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) and advanced chatbots, also referred to as Intelligent Automation, are common. To truly gain business benefits from WES, it will require the long-term vision to join these islands of automation into one seamless process.

Such digital transformation may seem daunting. This is where existing team members can help create new workflows and upskill their roles, becoming low-code authors of modernised work processes. Once skilled in the WES, workers who were once mere operators become empowered to redesign whole processes, adding to their employability and becoming more valuable to their employers, thanks to their new skill sets.

Less talk more action on employment

While many have discussed upskilling workers by handing them better and more evolved tools, there has been little action from politicians and large-scale businesses. This issue has been decades in the making and is clear to see from recent UK productivity figures. Initially, this problem was masked by cheaper imported labour, relatively expensive technology and comparatively fewer job vacancies. However, with lower unemployment levels and coming off the back of a pandemic, workers are now empowered with their skills. They have more choices for work which therefore creates a desire to complete meaningful work.
We have arrived at a point where UK workers will never go back to low-skill, low-reward work that focuses entirely on tedious administrative tasks.

Crucially, this comes at the perfect time. Decades of Artificial Intelligence expertise have matured to the point where it can offer a clear path forward. Proposing any growth strategy that is focused more on actions, rather than words, will require a new approach to how people work. The Work Execution System, employed by leading companies in Europe like Porsche, AstraZeneca and Nike is an exemplary solution to this. That is why one can safely predict that in 10 years, having a personal digital assistant will be as natural as having your own computer.

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Guanchun Wang

Guanchun Wang, Chairman and CEO of Laiye.