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BW Businessworld

5 Qs With Mankiran Chowhan On AI & ML For Businesses

Technology is proving to be one of the most valuable assets, she says

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Digital disruption transforming markets and organisation will continue to be unwavering, at least in the current decade. Marketers and managers across sectors are witnessing an unprecedented rise in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) solutions that are helping them cope with the dynamic market shifts and manage their internal functions better. Not only these help save time & cost, they also provide predictive and real-time data analytics to facilitate critical and time-bound decisions.

To delve deeper, Mankiran Chowhan, Managing Director – Indian Subcontinent, SAP Concur, in a conversation with BW Businessworld, highlights how AI/ML are taking over the normal processes, technology helping carry remote collaborations and much more.


Q. Is it important for enterprises to invest in digital tools?

The pandemic has drastically changed the way businesses used to operate. With lockdowns, social distancing norms and the advent of a hybrid workforce, the need for remote collaboration between departments and virtual communication between employees has been paramount for business continuity. 

In such a scenario, technology is proving to be one of the most valuable assets. Obsolete processes that were dependent on paper and constant human intervention have proved to be inefficient and vulnerable to the rapidly changing circumstances. Technologies – like AI, ML, cloud-based services – transcend the boundaries and limitations of physical dependency. Digital solutions can help automate repetitive tasks and eliminate the need for any human intervention. This can help in improving efficiency and productivity while reducing human error and time needed. It can also free up valuable employee time that can be used in more business-critical tasks.

For example - Finance departments that operated using paper-based invoices and reports hit a major roadblock once everyone started working remotely. Use of integrated intelligent spend management (ISM) solutions has helped companies in streamlining their expense processes bringing peace of mind to the employees and ease for the finance departments. ISM solutions can further help the business leaders to keep an eye on spends, find ways to tighten the control and best direct cash flow. This allows the business leaders to create a more agile and resilient enterprise and set the groundwork for the new world to come.

Q. What kind of manual processes will be taken over by AI/ML?

Numerous manual processes have already been replaced by automation and AI. For example, companies that use AI-powered spend management solutions have eliminated paper processes and tedious spreadsheets. In accounts payable departments, optical character recognition (OCR) and machine learning (ML) automatically ‘read’ and enter invoices into the payment system, then match invoice and purchase order information. AI can also predict which companies are likely to default on payments—based on factors such as previous late payments and customer complaints—and which are most likely to pay on time. 

Finance departments also benefit from AI through automated expense management processes. OCR and ML are used to recognize handwritten tips and totals from pictures of employees’ receipts, then automatically populate line items in an expense report. These reports are routed to finance managers who can take advantage of AI-assisted programs that automatically review each expense report and flag inaccuracies based on comparisons against hundreds of data elements in seconds.

Down the road, intelligent assistants will go beyond automatic data capture and analysis to predicting and making recommendations based on instantaneous analysis of a variety of data sources. For example, assistants powered by AI and ML will predict when a company would exceed budgetary limitations based on its previous spending patterns and those at similar organizations. It will also make recommendations to maximize budget, while also maintaining the employee experience, based on employee satisfaction studies and costs and policies at other companies. 

In the arena of business travel, a longstanding conundrum is how to balance the company’s priorities, like saving money, while still catering to employees’ needs for tailored travel experiences. This is where AI balances the scale and reconciles the competing needs of corporations and their employees and continue to improve travel and expense management. 

With AI and ML working hand in hand, recommendations can be made based on user and company data learned over time and interact with other applications also to maximize efficiency. All this happens, while ML algorithms process and synthesize the data providing near real-time feedback and assistance, which makes employees’ lives easier and helps meet corporate goals.

In the next couple years, ML will continue to alleviate pain points in corporate travel programs by redirecting tedious tasks to automated technology. As ML recognizes patterns in traveller behaviours, it will move from anticipating and recommending itineraries, to completely booking travel based on past experiences, calendar holds, user profiles and preferred loyalty programs.

Q. In your view, how has COVID-19 affected the implementation of AI/ML by businesses?

The pandemic changed many businesses’ view on technology. Those that relied on manual processes had to move quickly to deploy automation in order for work to get done. At the same time, companies couldn’t afford technology implementations that required long development cycles. They didn’t have a lot of time to replicate functions that were normally office centric into employees’ homes.

As a result, AI and ML have been increasingly important to quickly replace the tasks that were formerly done by people. More businesses are starting to lean onto AI/ML algorithms to make quick decisions backed by real-time financial transparency to meet the business needs brought on by the pandemic. As per a global study by PwC, India witnesses the highest increase in AI use compared to other major economies with over 70% of Indian organisations having implemented AI in some functional areas in 2020. This includes managing spending in near real-time to improve budget management and liquidity, increasing compliance and eliminating errors, and maximizing profitability.

Q. Do you think the pandemic has accelerated the use of AI/ML?

IDC predicts that worldwide revenues for the AI market will grow by 16.4 percent year over year to USD 327.5 billion in 2021. This increase shows that companies are investing in intelligent technologies for a variety of reasons. For instance, AI and ML give firms a much-needed competitive boost by improving their productivity. A recent SAP Concur-commissioned study found that 36 percent of employees in the India still submit expenses manually by filling out a form and enclosing physical receipts. This manual process can prove to be quite cost-intensive for the companies every year. 

AI and ML can also help with staff retention and customer satisfaction, simply by providing better user experiences for employees and customers. We expect the accelerated use of these technologies to continue as some business operations may return to normal, but many won’t.

On a larger scale, adoption of these new technologies can help in boosting the overall economy of the country. According to the report from NASSCOMM, Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could potentially add USD 450-500 billion to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025 and drive India’s economic growth.

Q. According to you, how AI and ML will be used in workplace in coming years?

Many businesses weren’t ready for remote work at the start of the pandemic, but there’s been continued investment in digital transformation initiatives. Companies are recognizing deficiencies and addressing emerging needs in their IT infrastructure, which is why we predict that AI at work will accelerate in coming years. 

Finance is one of the departments that has been impacted most by widespread remote work. These employees often rely on manual processes to print and mail invoices and cash cheques. Without a physical office to enable these processes, many scrambled to track down payments in the mail and get invoices out in time. Not only did this impact company financials but it also strained valuable partner relationships. It became clear to many businesses that manual processes had to be replaced. 

In the coming years, we are expecting more companies to use AI-powered invoice management solutions to digitize the process, automatically capture invoices and purchase orders, and audit each document to eliminate financial inaccuracies. 

As many companies have already extended work-from-home orders for 2021 as well, we expect continued investment in AI-powered solutions that simplify manual and inefficient processes, especially those that require in-person coordination.