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Artificial Intelligence (AI) eases the pressure as current labour shortages bite for white collar roles as well as blue

By Jo Hunter, Head of Marketing, Celaton Limited

With recurring headlines about fuel supply issues, the impending shortage of turkeys for Christmas, and reports that our HGV Drivers are overtaking solicitors and architects in the salary stakes, you might be forgiven for thinking that the people shortages relate to blue-collar, supply chain roles only. However, the current labour crisis, which has escalated since the lifting of our Covid restrictions in July, runs far deeper, and is significantly affecting our white-collar workforce availability too.

CELATON blue and white shirtsIn a recent update, the ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants England & Wales) reported that businesses are struggling to recruit due to widespread skills shortages, with thousands of critical roles, particularly in data and technology, remaining unfilled, worsening the labour crisis further across all sectors, particularly logistics, manufacturing, and retail. These are serious, global challenges, complicated further for Britain by Brexit.

Options for easing pressure are sparse, as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warns the shortages, which could prevail for at least 2 years, are seriously harming the UK’s outlook for economic recovery.  And in the UK many recruiters are realising the end of our furlough scheme is not the panacea we hoped it would be, as many returning workers have existing jobs to go back to. 

Whilst the Director-General of the CBI, Tony Danker, urges the Government to bolster its long-term economic reforms to alleviate short term pressures, he also encourages businesses to play their part by investing in training, automation, and digital transformation.

Whilst the front-line, blue-collar side of our labour supply gaps may be more difficult to solve right now, there are a number of quick wins to be had in our back offices by heeding Danker’s recommendations. For example, the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning with other related technologies, has been efficiently transforming repetitive, administrative operations for several years now. These Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) and Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) technologies, which include OCR (Optical Character Recognition)NLP (Natural Language Processing), amongst other tools, are reducing the need to rely on a human-heavy workforce for mundane and repetitive tasks. 

The tasks that lend themselves to this type of technology relate to sales order processing, the handling of client correspondence, and the burdensome accounts payable function. In fact, any organisation that employs people to handle incoming post and emails should take a look, as these solutions can be configured to recognise patterns and context. In other words ‘the machine’ is set up and ‘taught’ by humans, so that it can be trusted to power through the routine work, highlighting exceptions. AI solutions of this nature offer a wide range of immediate benefits, including:   increased processing speed, reduced costs, improved accuracy, and they free up people so their talents can be put to far better use elsewhere in the organisation. When combined with well-thought-through workflows and a ‘human-in-the-loop’ bureau service for the handling of any complex exceptions, the return-on-investment opportunities can be fast and significant.

For example, the Accounts Payable Association (APA) has published statistics on its website suggesting the processing of an individual supplier invoice can cost a company as much as £15+.  However, it is well documented that the processing cost can be anywhere from £30 to £50 per invoice.

At a time when there are few options for easing the labour shortage pressures on our economy, those supply chain organisations that have already embraced AI for their back-office operations, are now reaping the rewards. And for those that have not yet, it is well documented that a good AI accounts payable solution will reduce invoice processing time down from an average of 12 minutes to 2 minutes, costing as little as 20p per invoice to process, and is expected to deliver ROI in as little as 9 months following implementation.

Another great example of where AI technology is really making a difference through Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) is customer service, and the way organisations deal with mass incoming customer correspondence (e.g. emails, post and web forms).  According to Which?, 1 in 5 consumers complained they were unable to reach retailers during lockdown, and the latest survey (July 2021) from the Institute of Customer Service  (UKCSI) said the levels of customers having problems are at their highest since 2009.  A good AI solution can be configured to learn the content of documents by reading and categorising correspondence, recognising and extracting its key information. The data extracted is then processed via sophisticated, human-designed workflows configured to auto-respond to routine customer queries, flagging more involved queries to members of the team to be dealt with.  This kind of solution is proving invaluable to stretched customer service teams in terms of empowering them not only to cope with heavy demand, but to exceed customer expectations.

For help putting your AI business case together to ease your labour shortage pressures, please call the inSTREAM Team at Celaton during office hours today on +44 (0) 844 245 8000. At any other time please feel free to use our online enquiry form and an AI inSTREAM expert will contact you by return.

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