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Monday 22 July 2019
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Prepare for automation

Expert advises TT to focus on sectors that require human intervention

Rejo Sam, associate director of Avasant TT Consulting Ltd – a subsidiary of the global management consulting firm, Avasant. PHOTO COURTESY AVASANT.
Rejo Sam, associate director of Avasant TT Consulting Ltd – a subsidiary of the global management consulting firm, Avasant. PHOTO COURTESY AVASANT.

Technology is bringing with it greater automation of many services, which means people will need higher-value skills to remain employable in the not too distant future.

The advice comes from Rejo Sam, Associate Director of Avasant TT Consulting Ltd – a subsidiary of the global management consulting firm, Avasant.

"Anything that (is) process-oriented or process-related can be automated. Basic accounting has been automated; jobs like that. As per the World Bank, work like telemarketing has a 99 per cent scope of being automated in the next two to three years. So you can pretty much imagine the impact. It's going to be very profound. Things like bookkeeping, basic accounting and finance, anything that is not really judgement-based can definitely be automated."

Sam was speaking with Business Day on the sidelines of Avasant's Digital Innovation and Business Transformation Forum, held at Hyatt Regency, Port of Spain on May 15. The event, part of Avasant's global Empowering Beyond series, was hosted in collaboration with the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce of TT.

Avasant is delivering what it refers to as transformative active projects for clients around the world in the five main areas: digital transformation strategy; information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) skill development; economic impact analysis; tourism sector development strategy; and entrepreneurship development strategy.

Sam said digital innovation is also changing the BPO/shared services industry, so that it's no longer enough to advertise your country or city as a cost-effective place to set up shop. He told Business Day more and more, companies are going to new locations because they are innovative in addition to being affordable.

Rejo Sam, associate director of Avasant TT Consulting Ltd – a subsidiary of the global management consulting firm, Avasant – being interviewed by Newsday's business reporter, Sasha Harrinanan on May 15, 2018. PHOTO COURTESY AVASANT.

Jamaica has a well-established call centre BPO sector but having recognised the changing landscape, Sam said the country has already started putting plans in place to upskill its present workforce. This is meant to allow Jamaica to provide higher value, lower volume services when traditional call centres become obsolete.

Illustrating this, Sam said one of Avasant's clients has a workforce of almost 15,000 people. Once their payroll process becomes automated, he said a mere five people will be able to complete payroll for the entire staff in half a day. "So you can imagine how disruptive automation can be."

Regarding TT's goal of becoming a regional financial hub, Sam said while he couldn't predict the future, "If you're going to be relevant, you need to be in an industry segment which cannot be automated, one which requires human intervention. That includes judgement-based tasks or processes, things which include a lot of creativity."

He gave the example of high-end artificial intelligence (AI) or augmented reality (AR) intuitive app development. Getting there requires the development of a large skill base, from which a country or business can chose which niche or service to specialise in.

Sam said local companies, conglomerates in particular, should be looking to set up their own shared service centres even as the country works on attracting BPOs for overseas companies.

A slide showing an overview of Avasant's operations. Avasant is a global management consulting firm, headquartered in California, which advises private and public sectors across the globe. SLIDE COURTESY AVASANT.

"The reason for that is because that would make their own operations more efficient. They will be able to service their customers more efficiently and from an international perspective, it'll actually help give a very positive impression about Trinidad... because they will always have cross-reference – as in, see, Massy is doing it so it's definitely doable."

Sam also told Business Day TT should focus on providing judgement-based series such as financial analytics, legal support, business and investment resources series. These are not only higher value services, they are much less prone to automation and cost arbitrage.

Developing the requisite skills in the labour force however requires investment in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Sam pointed out that places in eastern Europe which have gained or are gaining a name for themselves in IT/BPO, thanks to their very strong backgrounds in maths and science.

Data sciences is another STEM-related field in which, Sam said, TT could develop a niche, if the relevant authorities move in a timely and consistent manner towards this goal.

"Data scientists are now the most desired professionals, especially in North America, because there is a serious dearth of them. Data scientists are people who analyse data, so you need to have very strong mathematical and statistical skills."

Sam cautioned that it's not enough to launch a data sciences programme at university-level.

"You need to create a much stronger base of maths and science graduates and off that, you'll eventually develop a pyramid of highly talented people."

He also said a niche like data sciences won't employ as many people as call centres but it will be a greater source of revenue.

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