AI Empowered retail roles: the new competitive advantage?

A Retailer can potentially use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to empower its people to analyse, transact and crucially sell faster and smarter to customers than its competitors. So, what might these jobs look like? Here are some ideas…

“Fixers” – Retailers are always looking to optimise their supply chain costs while improving the customer experience. A key pain point is last mile logistics – the need to offer increasingly timely, flexible delivery of goods to individual customers while maintaining the right economies of scale on distribution to achieve margin. A Fixer – possibly a third-party platform service provider – bids for and delivers instant solutions to solve these daily challenges. Their unique ability to use AI to continually optimise delivery routes and facilitate the sharing of local stock between Retailers (often competitors) to satisfy customer demand 24/7 places them at the heart of the Retail Sector in 2020.

“Instore Experience Trainers” – AI doesn’t innovate by itself; this advantage comes from people teaching or training it to deliver delightful and compelling customer experiences on any channel. An Instore Experience Trainer is someone who spends their working day testing different AI driven experiences from different Sectors and then uses this emotional insight to teach an Artificial Intelligence capability new ways to better engage customers instore – rapid human innovation scaled to differentiate thousands of individual customer interactions with a specific Retailer.

“AI Scanners” – As Artificial Intelligence grows so too does the opportunity for competitors to use it to analyse a Retailer’s offerings for strengths and weaknesses. An AI Scanner is monitoring daily how customers are engaging a Retailer’s Artificial Intelligence to identify such behaviour and its source to enable a proactive response to protect market competitiveness.

If you would like more information about how artificial intelligence can benefit your retail business, leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Breathing new life into joined up government

In 2008 the political scientist Donald Kettl introduced the idea of a ‘vending machine’ style of government. Operating in vertical silos, hierarchical and providing standalone services, this structure works well for routine services that don’t require collaboration. But it falters when we need joined up government.

For example, support and advice for the elderly is provided by the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities, private sector providers of residential care and the voluntary and communities sector. How well the organisations work together and co-ordinate their activities has a significant impact on the quality of care provided.

And there are clear benefits from kicking the ‘vending machine’ approach into touch and shifting to joint working, such as:

  • Tackling complex social issues such as drug abuse, rough sleeping, juvenile crime by promoting the design of programmes which are better interconnected and mutually supportive
  • Promoting innovation by bringing people together from different backgrounds and experiences
  • Improving cost effectiveness of public services by removing overlaps and realising economies of scale

The citizen view of joined up public services – our digital barometer

Nowhere would the advantages of joined up government be more visible than in the way government interacts with citizens online. Our recent research with Ipsos, and my previous blog shows that online access to public services is the number one priority. But citizens increasingly want government to use the same systems and share data with one another. And this a consistent message across the UK, France, Norway and Germany.

Chart 1 - text translation at bottom of page
Chart 1: To what extent should the following actions become priorities for government? (Top 3 responses)

This means delivering services through ‘one stop shops’, integrated with websites accessible 24 hours a day, and by citizens only having to provide information on a range of issues once, and to one location. However, the dream of never having to retype your address on another sign-up form is a long way off. We asked citizens if they had ever used a government service that extracted information from other relevant public services. Just thirty-nine per cent said they had, while sixty-one per cent said this had never happened.

Chart 2 - text translation at bottom of page
Chart 2: Have you ever used a government digital service that accessed information about you and your family once and included information previously provided to other parts of government?

Joining up through platforms – are they the answer?

The Government’s Transformation Strategy clearly establishes the need for common capabilities to manage publishing, web hosting, identity verification, notifications, payments and other processes. The goal is a seamless or horizontal government offering to improve performance, illuminate problems and lower costs.

A platform model will punch holes through government silos, improving efficiency and reinforcing transparency. But we also know that digital transformation is as much about organisational culture as it is about technology.

What needs to be in place to promote successful joint working across government? My checklist is:

  • Working towards clearly defined, mutually valued, shared goals and evaluating progress towards their achievement
  • Ensuring that sufficient and appropriate resources are available (typical skills for joint working are project management, marketing, consultation, financial planning as well as IT)
  • Leadership, to direct the team and the initiative towards the goal, with the ability to convince stakeholders of the purpose of the initiative and secure the involvement of a wide range of organisations

Successful parts of government are constantly rethinking how to bring together the right combination of skills to build products and serve customers. That often means creating more fluid and agile structures in which day-to-day work is organised into smaller teams that cut across business lines.

The key digital tool at their disposal is data sharing. Data is your biggest ally when making big changes or attempting to solve complex problems. Numbers provide information and analytics can be used to focus resources. In my mind the objective should be to:

  • Pilot approaches within a specific line of business and at a departmental level and scale up – it’s usually less complex than a government wide effort – as we learnt in our Court Store project
  • Adopt a ‘system of systems’, built around data exchanges, and building a common understanding of how the shared data is defined
  • Ultimately burning down data silos, as the impact is multiplied when data sets across departments are integrated, remixed and processes with analytics
  • And phasing out legacy systems gradually, moving to new systems in phases, and always asking “will this system be useful to other parts of government?” (often through open source platforms and technologies)

Sopra Steria is working with public servants across governments to develop new platforms and processes. If you would like more information, or would just like to raise a question or add information, please feel free to add a comment below or contact me by email.

Text translation of Chart 1

Question: To what extent should the following actions become priorities for government? (Top 3 responses)

  • Online access to public services: UK 83% / France 84% / Norway 91% / Germany 81%
  • The single transmission of data to government: UK 77% / France 85% / Norway 87% / Germany 77%
  • The creation of a portal giving access to multiple services: UK 76% / France 86% / Norway 88% / Germany 75%

Text translation of Chart 2

Question: Have you ever used a government digital service that accessed information about you and your family once and included information previously provided to other parts of government?

  • Yes, once: UK 18% / France 21% / Norway 14% / Germany 19%
  • Yes, several times: UK 21% / France 22% / Norway 32% / Germany 11%
  • No, never: UK 61% / France 57% / Norway 54% / Germany 70%

Artificial Intelligence: The new entertainment experience?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can radically transform how we interact with a range of services, with Amazon’s Alexa being a notable example growing rapidly in popularity. But in what ways could AI disrupt how we use and consume entertainment? Here are some ideas…

Dynamic film narrative

An AI can use Machine Learning to find hidden insights in a data set to identify remedial action. This capability could be used to enable a film viewer to directly interact with a film’s narrative – pausing the action any time to tell the AI (or even the film’s characters themselves?) how they think and feel about the story. Sentiment that an AI can then analyse in the cloud to learn what an audience wants next that’s fed back to the content producer – greater plot exposition, more of their favourite characters or action. AI-driven blockbuster entertainment that never flops!

Game voice user interface

Natural Language Processing (NLP) enables an AI to understand and respond to spoken and written commands. In terms of a console gaming experience, NLP could transform such experiences. Rather than using a controller to direct and interact with non-player characters within a game, the player could talk to them directly, naturally – a new level of gameplay design that creates truly immersive experiences.

Personalised content maker

AI’s ability to analyse massive amounts of data from potentially any source is enabling deeper, richer forms of Personalisation. Could an AI use this capability to create brand new content (stories, images, even films or music) to an individual’s specific tastes and mood? On demand entertainment that always delights, never gets boring or ends – the perfect TV channel you won’t want to switch off!

If you would like more information about how artificial intelligence can benefit your retail business, leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Our European digital barometer survey: some key findings

Sopra Steria recently asked the researchers at Ipsos to conduct a survey of 1000 people, from a broad range of social groups and across the United Kingdom, to understand their experience of and expectations for digital government. We wanted a better understanding of the complex and diverse reasons behind adoption of digital government services, where there is an appetite for more or different services and the obstacles that block greater adoption.

The same survey took place in France, Germany and Norway. As a result we have an opportunity to compare how citizens in the UK experience digital with others across Europe and consider alternative approaches.

Governments across Europe are at different stages on the digital journey

Governments across Europe have been looking for decades at how best to use technology to improve public services. Over the last five years, rather than just putting paper forms online, government has put more high volume transactional services online. Citizens seem to appreciate the simpler, well designed digital services – three quarters of citizens described services as advanced in Norway through to just over half in Germany.

To see a text version of this chart, go to the end of this blog
Question: How would you describe the current degree of digital development – i.e. use of the Internet and technology – in the Government (national, local or devolved administrations) and its services?

Citizens in all four countries told us that taxation was the most advanced digital service. 89% of Norwegian citizens told us that digital tax services were advanced and 86% in France. By way of comparison, just 59% of UK citizens said the services of HM Revenue and Customs were advanced. It will be interesting to track how the significant investment made in Personal Tax Accounts might increase citizen perceptions of digital in future surveys.

We also asked citizens to compare government and private sector digital services. It is clear that citizen expectations are increasing – they understand the ‘art of the possible’ from their experience of dealing with the best private sector organisations.

Question: In your opinion, compared to the digital services in the following sectors, are the digital services of Government?

At the same time citizens across Europe told us that health and civil status services – that’s birth, death and marriage records – are priorities for investment. I think we can all sympathize with this. Too often people have to re-tell their story every time they encounter a new service and do not get the support they need because different parts of government do not talk to each other or share information.

What do citizens want? A single citizen portal

As illustrated below, there remains a strong appetite from citizens across Europe for the convenience associated with online access to public services.

To see a text version of this chart, go to the end of this blog
Question: To what extent should the following actions become priorities for the government?

Citizens also told us that they want joined up government – with one portal allowing 24/7 access to multiple public services, across national and local administrations, including the single transmission and sharing of data and information.

In the UK, Tell Us Once was launched in 2012 and has helped nearly two million families through a system that shares data on changes of circumstance with the DWP and other public services including local government and other government departments such as HMRC, DVLA, the Passport Service and pension providers. However the service is still not available in some local authorities or Northern Ireland and the range of services available varies between areas. There is more work to be done.

We have already seen how positive citizens in Norway are about digital government – this might be because they were one of the first countries in Europe to have a single sign-on for government and an ability to notify different parts of government of a change of address in just one transaction. As early as 2000 (a decade before the UK) the Norwegian public sector information portal (Norge.no) was launched to provide a portal which provides a single ‘electronic’ front door to the public sector.

Next steps for digital government

A shift towards citizen centricity has helped to focus governments’ attention on why user take-up of digital services was, at least initially, lagging. But the next phase of digital, clearly articulated in the UK Government’s Transformation Strategy, is to enhance the degree of integration and personalisation of services, collaboration and co-operation between public authorities, through standardisation and interoperability. This means making services easy to use by organising them in a simple and fully integrated way to increase the likelihood of users using them to solve their problems.

We have prepared a summary of the other findings and conclusions of the survey. This is available on the Sopra Steria website. And we will be blogging about some of the key themes, including data security and privacy and the potential benefits of automation for citizens.

In the meantime, please leave your comments and questions below, or contact me by email.

Text version of charts:

Chart 1: How would you describe the current degree of digital development – i.e. use of the Internet and technology – in the Government (national, local or devolved administrations) and its services? (all approx)

  • Norway 70%; France 75%; UK 63%; Germany 62%

Chart 2: In your opinion, compared to the digital services in the following sectors, are the digital services of Government?
% based on ‘Govt more advanced’, ‘The same’, ‘Private sector more advanced’

  • Banks / Insurance 23%, 38%, 39%
  • Telecoms 20%, 40%, 40%
  • Energy 17%, 47%, 36%
  • Sales 16%, 42%, 42%
  • Leisure / Culture 16%, 37%, 47%
  • Transport 15%, 47%, 38%

Chart 3: To what extent should the following actions become priorities for the government?

  • Contacting government offices online: 85%  }
  • Internet access to public services: 84%           } ’24/7 Online Government’
  • Single transmission of data to Government: 82%    }
  • Single portal to access Government services: 81%  } ‘Joined up Government’
  • Transparency of public data: 70% – ‘Open Government’

Doing more with less: digital transformation and social care

In a recent blog, I highlighted the need to shift thinking in government from efficiency to productivity. I used the example of education and highlighted innovations that might increase productivity through digitisation of teaching services and communication. I now want to extend the debate by looking at social care.

Social care services cover a range of home support services provided for the young and the elderly and people with disabilities, to assist people to remain in their own homes and communities. In England, social care is predominantly the responsibility of local authorities. They are facing unprecedented pressure due to rising demand and an increase in customer expectations. Growing numbers of older people often have increasingly complex needs.

At the same time future spending on social care is very uncertain. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, demographic pressures will cause per-capita spending to fall in the absence of additional funding. And local authority revenues are expected to fall by 7.4% between 2015 and 2020.

Social care providers are adopting new models for delivering care

Where is this happening? Connecting Care is a partnership across the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire area. The partnership comprises 17 different organisations (including the three councils, hospital trusts, ambulance trusts, GPs and community health providers) with 14 individual client record systems interacting between them. Client data is gathered from each participating organisation and carefully matched to display an integrated data set for each person.

This is one example of service integration through voluntary cooperation between the public, private and community sectors. Where there is a cultural shift, with services integrated through digitisation, there are substantial benefits for:

  • Administration: Supporting integrated case management systems, with a broader overview of needs and options to inform individualised planning and cross-sector coordination, using tablets for care plans, risk assessments, health assessments, safeguarding and medication (documented on the system in real time).
  • In home care and support: A combination of digital records and web-based access to information for staff and enhanced communication tools for service users and their family and friends, ultimately allowing service users to organise leisure activities and plan their own care and support.
  • Financial support: Increasing digitisation of the payment of financial support, including determining and verifying eligibility, and calculating and making benefits payments, ultimately leading to greater choice between different care options.

The major limitations of the digital social care market are not the shortage of technology

Innovation uptake is slow compared to other parts of the public sector. It is important to recognise that there are a number of complex challenges to successful digital transformation . Most of these challenges relate to the human dimension – the readiness for change amongst citizen’s and service users to an increasingly digital environment, and concerns about the privacy and security of personal data.

The practical reality is that the speed of advancement in technologies undoubtedly exceeds the speed with which the potential benefits can be realised in the delivery of social care. So, what are the practical steps that the public sector can take to speed up the deployment of innovations in social care and protection?

  • Step 1 – Greater transparency of processes and operations and encouraging participation of public, private and community stakeholders in policy making and service design.
  • Step 2 – Promote engagement and co-operation across different levels of government through adequate incentives, quickly moving to the pooling of resources and shared agreements and targets.
  • Step 3 – Develop clear business cases to sustain the funding and focused implementation of digital technologies projects.
  • Step 4 – Build institutional capacities to manage and monitor project implementation, with a significant emphasis on procurement and contracting practices.
  • Step 5 – Integrated data and better usage to measure productivity and efficiency in all parts of the value chain of public service delivery.

These practical steps do not just apply to social protection – they are equally relevant to other public services, including, health, education and other welfare services.

I’ve been really enthused by the examples of productivity enhancing innovations provided by public servants since my last blog. I would like to hear from more public servants about how they are using technology to enhance how they work and deliver services to the public – please get in touch by leaving a message or sending an email.

What’s in a name? Shifting the debate in Government from efficiency to productivity

Government often thinks of efficiency and productivity as two sides of the same coin. But the reality is that they are very different. And this difference will become ever more important. The government needs budget cuts that maintain (or even increase) the volume and quality of key public services.

The term efficiency is used to identify the minimal amount of inputs that an organisation needs to use to produce products or services. Or doing the same with less. For the past decade, through various spending reviews, Ministers have asked Civil Servants to streamline services. This has led to a drastic reduction in the number of public servants: the Civil Service is at its smallest since the Second World War. Local government had to address more immediate and significant budget cuts (and central government could learn from how they did this).

This translates into savings because government spends less on wages and other staff related costs. Other (often lesser but important) sources of efficiency include improvements to government procurement and reductions to fraud, error and debt.

The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, described this approach in the following terms:

What we are showing is that deficit reduction and an opportunity society are not alternatives. They can complement each other. Because with a smarter state, we can spend less and deliver more.

Just like businesses, government needs to constantly adapt and change to improve public services and reduce costs.

But the benefits from improving efficiency are starting to peter out

There is evidence that key public services are being pushed to the limit. For example, violence in prisons rose sharply since 2014, with assaults on staff increasing by 61 per cent in two years. And in other areas, such as the health service, there is a constant upward pressure on demand and costs due to a growing and ageing population, which suffers from an ever-rising tide of complex chronic conditions.

There is a limit to how far government can cut staff numbers. The Ministry of Justice has plans to employ 2,500 new prison officers to make our prisons more safe and secure. And thousands of prison officers at jails in London and south-east England are to get pay rises of up to £5,000 to boost staffing levels. Other key public services, including border controls and tax collection, have also had to rethink staff cuts.

So, if efficiency has run out of steam then what about productivity?

The term productivity is used to assess how an organisation is succeeding in progressively developing its performance. Or doing more with the same. Productivity enhancing changes are often far reaching and innovative, particularly in high impact areas such as education, healthcare and social care and protection.

Government initially made investments in digitisation, generally with a focus on improving efficiency in administrative services that support frontline service delivery. These services were more user-focused and relied on greater use of digital technologies, including the UK Government’s cloud first policy.

So far so good. But as government departments are placed under ever greater scrutiny, including the modelling of further cuts through the Treasury’s Efficiency Review, they need to look at more innovative changes in service design and delivery. The use of digital technologies must move beyond the back-office and front-office administrative processes and be applied to direct service delivery.

The next step – public service reform and the integration of technology

Education is one example of how this use of technology enabled organisational change can enhance productivity. My formative education in the 1970s and 1980s was premised on relatively little change. Teachers rarely took account of preferred learning styles. The global revolution of online teaching and learning through massive online open courses was a long way off.

The so-called fourth industrial revolution requires us to be agile and to be bold. The pace of change, driven by technology and globalisation, is so fast that two thirds of children starting at school this year will work in jobs that do not even exist yet.

Education is changing and becoming more efficient. Most students have access to laptops and tablets both at home and school (although we must always be wary that some students might not have access to technology or necessary skills). Teaching and learning is supported through online resources that share knowledge. Administrative processes are being digitised.

But it is worth looking to other countries for inspiration and examples of productivity boosting investments. Denmark, Finland and Estonia have already developed digital tools that save teachers’ time when revising tasks and exams, they are building new markets to provide digital learning materials, to be shared across schools and they are developing an online ‘education cloud’ to join up educational platforms and materials.

I would like to hear from teachers and public servants, across local and central government, to share and understand how they are using technology and adopting new ways of working. Please leave me a message, or contact me by email and we can continue the discussion.

The rise of the Intelligent Machine

So it’s Tuesday evening and I’m watching the BBC 10 O’clock news. There’s an article being aired around the impact that technology-driven automation is going to have on the labour market which is suggesting that by 2035, 35% of the total UK employment market may be at risk of displacement. This is a pretty sobering statement, and gives rise to philosophical debate around the impact that this will have – not just on those members of the workforce affected, but also on our education system and the nature of employment opportunity in the advent of the automation revolution. Should we be teaching our children differently, right now, to prepare them for this? How do we second guess those jobs that are likely to become obsolete and thus help our children to focus their energies in those areas less likely to be impacted? Are we in danger, as some have prophesised, of creating an unemployable underclass?

Only time will tell, and it’s human nature to want to predict the worst case scenario, but quite often the reverse scenario is the more likely outcome.

Historically speaking, advances in technology, robotics and automation have not resulted in a commensurate rise in unemployment numbers but have actually increased employment

Deloitte executed a study on this subject using census data going back to 1871 and found that, whilst certainly some jobs have been made largely redundant by technology, the labour market has responded by switching to roles in care, service and education sectors. Knowledge-based industries in particular have benefitted from the ubiquitous availability of data, and increasing ease of communication. People are generally wealthier as the costs of goods and services have dropped which, rather amusingly, has seen a 1000% rise in bar staff (so we now know where all of our extra cash is going).

But this new wave of technology, the rise of artificial intelligence and intelligent machines, will likely have an equally material impact on knowledge based industries as robotics and technology assisted machinery has had on manual labour based ones. Companies such as IBM are spearheading this movement with technologies such as Watson. Cognitive computing platforms that are able to ‘think’ in human-like ways, they can reason, understand context, and use previous experience to make future predictions and inform decision making. They are capable of conversing in natural language and, when used in conjunction with big data repositories, are able to present insight that would otherwise be impossible to achieve using conventional computational systems. Perhaps more importantly, when used in conjunction with process automation engines, they are able to execute tasks. Process automation is not a new technology – we’ve been achieving this to varying degrees of complexity for many years now. What cognitive technologies bring to the table, however, is the ability to deal with decisions. Theoretically a cognitive system can execute complex processes that, under normal circumstances, would be wholly reliant on human interaction to complete due to the inherent necessity to think, to reason, and to bring knowledge into the equation. The future potential for such technologies is only now starting to be truly understood.

If, like me, you have an overactive imagination you may be imagining a cognitive system like IBM’s Watson to be some kind of huge supercomputer with flashing lights akin to the WOPR in the seminal 1983 classic film, WarGames. Indeed the WOPR was capable of natural language processing (it could talk), it could ‘learn’ through trial and error (albeit via circa 1000 games of tic tac toe) and it was capable of making informed decisions based on access to a wide range of data (Russian nuclear missile launch trajectories). But the reality is that Watson is highly scalable and not nearly so resource hungry. When it won the US TV show Jeopardy! in 2011, beating two of the show’s most prolific and successful contestants in the process, it did so running on 100 IBM POWER 750 servers running in a massively parallel computing cluster. Since then, IBM has refined the code for enterprise use such that it can now run on a single server platform, or directly via the Cloud. The Watson algorithms are being embedded in multiple different enterprise applications, tuned for different use cases, and are already being adopted in major banking and healthcare applications, to name but a few.

Other companies are also now offering enterprise solutions that have cognitive capabilities behind them, and one area that is garnering quite a bit of interest of late is the Virtual Digital Assistant, also commonly known as (an intelligent) chatbot. If you’ve ever used a customer service chat box online, you may be familiar with the concept of a ‘bot’ that can ask certain pre-canned questions or relay information prior to handing you off to a human operator. Bots are also often used in web chat applications for things like providing help on how to use the service itself.

Historically bots have been pretty dumb. They possess no innate intelligence, and simply work from a script. Go off-script, and the bot will simply not understand the question.

Chatbots that use cognitive algorithms, on the other hand, possess two unique and potentially game changing characteristics. Firstly, the can converse using natural language, so the experience is a very close approximation to that when conversing with a real human. Secondly, they can go off-script – they can interpret questions or instructions and combine stored knowledge with probabilistic algorithms to provide you with a response that is highly likely to be appropriate and possibly even useful! Such systems need to learn over time, and can even be trained, so their true potential is not unlocked immediately. Their potential, however, is huge, the use cases are many.

So what of the impact of such technologies? For the consumer, the likes of Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri will only become more capable and increasingly useful. Integration with home automation systems and access to consumer services are the obvious starting points. At present, the vast majority of service integration is limited to vendor’s entertainment and media services, but thinking outside of the box, consider the implications of using such technology to engage with other types of service providers. Want to pay your bank bill? Why not ask Alexa to do it for you? Need to register a complaint with your utility provider? Why not have Siri do it for you? Need to book a taxi? …Cortana?! As consumer service provider organisations begin to digitise their customer engagement channels, this kind of opportunity for integration begins to open up, paving the way for a new era in automated service fulfilment.

For the enterprise the impact is likely to be significantly more material. Efficient gains made via labour arbitrage, for instance, will shift to those enabled by technology arbitrage, as automation, driven by cognitive platforms, drives the cost of service down and the quality of service up. The impact this will have on traditional delivery models could be both rapid and significant. Service providers using cheap labour to deliver cost-effective knowledge-centric services will likely need to re-evaluate their models to remain competitive. Junior roles within organisation, many of which may be traditional routes in to the industry, will need to adapt to cater to those areas that support these new technology capabilities, or else see themselves replaced by them. Commercial models too will need to adapt as customers choose to move increasingly toward consumption or outcome based models, rather than those dictated by headcount or traditional performance related targets. The opportunities are there in abundance for those providers – and consumers – who choose to embrace the technology. Indeed, in this particular case, the WOPR was way off target when it philosophically announced that “…the only way to win is not play”. Whilst that may be true of Global Thermonuclear War, it certainly isn’t true of intelligent computing platforms within the enterprise.

As for me, I’m off to play a nice game of chess…

What are your views? Leave a reply below or, if you would like to learn more about these topics, please contact me by email.