Tony McCandless – The role of generative AI in intelligent automation

Tony McCandless, UK, Ireland and Benelux managing director at SS&C Blue Prism, spoke to Information Age about the keys to intelligent automation leadership, and the current generative AI trend

As managing director of UK, Ireland and Benelux regions at SS&C Blue Prism, Tony McCandless has been leading intelligent automation processes for customers across an array of sectors, with a keen eye on the hot trend that is generative AI. Described as a role that encompasses that of the chief technology officer, he leads customer-facing sales teams, helping businesses to drive value from intelligent automation (IA) capabilities now and in the future. Prior to joining SS&C Blue Prism in September 2021, McCandless held tech leadership roles at Dell, FIS and Thames Water – accumulating and bringing innovation experience across multiple industries including financial services and utilities.

In this Q&A, Tony McCandless speaks with Information Age about the roles that generative AI can play in intelligent automation, how the technology could develop over time, and plans for the rest of the year at SS&C Blue Prism.  

What have been the biggest leadership challenges you have faced in your role at SS&C Blue Prism, and how have you gone about overcoming them?

I’m 34 years in the industry but nothing’s really changed from the standpoints of people, process and technology being the core elements, and how you get things done. For us, it’s been a case of trying to get people to step back a little bit, and look with a positively critical mindset at the interactions we’re having with our customers, and really put the whole ethos of what can we do to help. It’s mostly the same paradigm that you get in most leadership positions, but I think the SS&C Blue Prism family is an interesting one in that, genuinely, everybody wants to make something good happen.

I was recently with the product team, for example, and they look at the product, and examine the lines of code day in and day out. Part of the challenge there, is to go out and see what our customers do with our products, because this can be very complex. We have our systems being used to help councils undertake child protection; helping the NHS address cancer backlogs and in the middle of the pandemic, freeing up the time of doctors and nurses to get to patients on the front line. People need to continue to remember that isn’t just about looking at the product in-house — you need to go and see customers. This way, you get to really understand why you’re putting so much effort in. And I think as well automation actually has a societal good to it. Yes, we’re a company that makes revenue and profit. But we do some really good things that help in our society. So that’s pretty cool.

How can generative AI improve contact centre operations and customer service?

At a recent conference, I asked a group of people, how many of them liked chatbots, and it was a nice round figure — zero. They hated them. And then you wonder, what is useful about it?

When it comes to using technology to satisfy a particular need, like efficiently submit an energy reading for example, the system may come back with instructions that are really informative and helpful, meaning that your contact centre operatives don’t have to be sitting there, walking you through the whole process. Then I think as well back to the theme of having digital capabilities serve the employee, and realise that employee experience alongside customer experience is critical. Therefore, you don’t want contact centre operatives having to do multiple screen surfing, in order to get the data that they need to be able to relate to the customer.

But using generative AI, when a user comes on to participate in ID checks, we can deliver a 360 view of our interactions. That way, the contact centre operative won’t need to go into the system and cut and paste data from here to there. What we’re doing, is ensuring that human beings are served by the system, rather than having human beings serve the system. It can help with massive email influx, by helpfully generating some automated responses based on customer queries. Because people get something back, it doesn’t feel like a chatbot, but rather like someone’s on the other end proactively looking for information to help you.

So in that respect, I think it absolutely has true benefits that will aid the contact centre, and improve the customer experience. But whatever it is that generates that negative response to chatbots, I think we’ve got to bear that in mind to make sure that the positive feeling of the interaction outweigh the negative aspects of it being served up by technology.

When it comes to making complex business decisions with the aid of generative AI, what are the keys to ensuring that this process stays aligned with business goals?

When it comes to decision making, a key example that comes to my mind is generative AI in the insurance space. We have two Labradors and a cat, and Labradors are infamous for managing to injure themselves, so we will have visits to the vets once or twice a year. When we put a claim form in on one occasion, the insurance company that we use, to our shock, sent payment to our bank account the next day. The interesting thing is that the renewal then came in, and the price hike was significant — 30 per cent.

But we stayed, because we thought the price increase was worth it. We were previously used to resolutions coming at some point in the distant future, whereas the reality here was that the insurance company improved the customer experience, using intelligent decision making. Then when checking for fraud, they had set up some thresholds to determine the claims that they felt comfortable to put through almost automated authorisation, on the basis of analysis of the historic claim base. So you put those aspects together, wrap some intelligence around it, and the customer experience at the other end was absolutely, stunningly good – so much so that we would pay more for the product.

I think we’ve got to think about the capabilities of technology but always be mindful of the need for unique human soft skills, such as empathy, creativity, and relationship building. There are some boundaries, that we as human beings are not comfortable with, and we need to consider that.

What roles can generative AI play in process intelligence in a business, when it comes to deriving business rules, compliance, and auditability features?

If you look at the ESG or CSR policies of businesses, all companies should be aware of environmental sustainability. It sounds like an easy step to implement and see through, but it really isn’t, because the data required in order to generate that report card is probably sitting in many different systems. It goes beyond considering the journeys that staff take across the year, and how they travelled. Nobody actually seems to track and turns that into carbon impact.

When looking at artificial intelligence however, you can traverse multiple systems; examine the supply chain and look at human impact; and generate an ESG report card to share with colleagues in order to find ways to decrease environmental impact. Many others have suggested different ways to get this done, but to me, this seems like something that’s quite sensible to point generative AI capabilities at.

How do you see generative AI driving value for businesses in the next few years?

Firstly, there are a lot of financial services companies that are at the forefront of customer experience, to some degree, because they’ve got particular products to sell that lend themselves well to AI. They can implement capabilities like data analytics in order to know whether a customer is likely to buy a certain product. And then, they can reach out to companies like us and utilise a choice of generative AI-powered scenarios. This looks set to continue evolving.

I think as well, in areas like citizen services — certainly from a UK perspective — most councils are really cash strapped, and are having to make critical decisions about service provision to citizens. There is also a digital access gap that we have to focus on closing. While some councils are proving good at addressing this, others potentially need a bit more investment, and collaboration.

We’ve got 10 grandkids, and you should see a couple of the younger ones with technology — their ability to pick up a tablet, without knowing what a keyboard is, is just mind blowing. When I think about the use of generative AI for education and experience, I think that we’ll see an increase there. But while AI isn’t going to steal people’s jobs, there absolutely needs to be some boundaries. This technology will only do what human beings have taught it to be able to do. So if we teach them to do bad things, like a dog, they’ll do bad things. So addressing the ethics side of this is really critical.

I refuse to believe that humanity is going to be pushed to the side and replaced by a whole load of robots. It’s just not happening.

What strategic initiatives do you have planned for the rest of the year at SS&C Blue Prism?

I just spent a couple of days last week with our product group. It was really exciting — they’re looking at making access to our Intelligent Automation platform much easier. Certainly, in future, there’s a perspective relating to Intelligent Automation on demand, and making it easier for staff to consume and to use. There’s the widely discussed idea of human in the loop, which to me means the ability then to raise unusual situations to people’s attention when dealing with automated backend systems.

At the end of the day, while there are newer kids on the block in the intelligent automation space — and competition is always great — what it comes back to, is the focus on our customers. We’re looking to get to the next generation of intelligent automation, and build more capability in there to make it not just easier to use, but also to create new use cases, more decision-making capability within the platform for more complex decisions. And always at the bottom line is what our client is looking for. The product team are all over it, and listening to our customers is key to this as well.

More on generative AI

Mike Myer – ‘Generative AI is another huge transformation’Mike Myer, CEO and founder of Quiq, the AI-driven chatbot solution for customer service, whose clients include Nespresso, Wella and Spirit Airlines, believes that generative AI promises to change our world in the way the internet did back in the mid-1990s.

How to embrace generative AI in your enterpriseWhat are the use cases for embedding generative AI in your enterprise? How can it help ease burden of repetitive admin? What are its limitations?

We chat with ChatGPT itself about the future of AI – What can ChatGPT tell us itself about the future of AI? What are the best use cases for Generative AI? And will artificial intelligence one day surpass humanity, leaving us behind?

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.