Keeping the future bright in IT-BPM

THE INFORMATION Technology and Business Process Management (IT-BPM) industry remains among the country’s most successful and productive sectors.  Employing up to 1.2 million Filipinos, it continues to pump into the economy some very vital dollar earnings.

In 2016, the industry earned nearly US$22.9 billion. This year, it already surpassed that performance with up to US$23.8 billion in mid-year earnings.

Such productivity does not go unnoticed. The 2018 Tholons Services Globalization Index (TGSI) ranks the Philippines as the world’s second (2nd) top globalization destination and second (2nd) among its “Top 50 Digital Nations”— behind only India.

But now that the country has solidified its place as a top destination, especially for voice-based business processes, it is imperative that the IT-BPM industry evolves and faces its biggest challenges head on.

Many have sounded the alarm on how artificial intelligence (AI) could drastically transform the landscape.  They worry that a single computer loaded with very powerful software could one day replace the rows of cubicles manned by our hard-working contact center agents.

In fact, tech giant Google revealed in May its newest innovation, Duplex — arguably among the most advanced AI program that understands and reacts to human speech. Video demonstrations of Duplex show how the “near-human” virtual assistant can actually call and set an appointment with a hairdresser or make a restaurant reservation — all without sounding like a computer.

The verdict is still out on whether Google’s Duplex already signals the doom of voice-based outsourced services. Some argue in fact that the advent of such technology will only broaden, not limit, the growth space for IT-BPM in the Philippines. What’s necessary is to undertake a massive upskilling effort so that Filipino workers will be equipped to take advantage of such technological innovations.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) listed several skills that will be important for the future workplace. The top skills needed would be “complex problem-solving,” “critical thinking,” “creativity” “people management,” and “coordinating with others.” All are hard to automate, as they differentiate a person’s capabilities from that of a machine.

There is still the need however to revisit our capabilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The best place to start is our education system.  We should drill down on improving the quality of our education, since we’ve technically made all levels free and accessible to all.

One area we should really put our hearts and minds into though is innovation. In my last column, I touched on how poor linkages between the academe, industry and government for research and development (R&D) are a major reason why we are so slow to innovate.

But calling for closer ties between stakeholders is a refrain that has been repeated and attempted many times before. This only begs asking:  How in fact do we start innovating? A big step is in recognizing that innovations today can from anybody, anytime, anywhere.

Take for instance, what happened in NASA in 2010.  NASA officials were forced to get creative when faced with budget cuts and growing questions about the utility of billions of dollars on scientific research.

For one project, they resorted to crowdsourcing, which meant giving anybody who was interested the data, tools, and machines that NASA researchers were using in their labs.  The results were surprising.  Where the traditional turnaround period for R&D was anywhere between three to five years, under this “open innovation” model, answers came in as early as three months after the research question was first posed.

Authors Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans wrote that this NASA experiment demonstrated a “new power” model, where innovation is a “bottoms-up” affair, can take place practically anywhere, and emerges from constant collaboration and mass participation of practically anyone.  Simply, innovation has been democratized. And in such a world, it’s no longer correct to say “the lab is my world” but rather “the world is my lab.”

Perhaps one way we can innovate and arrive upon bigger ideas that could push our IT-BPM, as well as our other industries, is by ensuring that many more people are able to participate. Perhaps through crowdsourcing, we could keep the future of our IT-BPM bright.

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Sen. Sonny Angara was elected in 2013, and now chairs the Senate committees on local government, and ways and means. (Email: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/PN

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