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Vodafone dubiously tries to fix AI/job loss conundrum

Vodafone Neil Bladen

Is the cost of profitability and efficiency worth the PR damage caused by automation and redundancies? That’s one of the difficult questions facing companies in the AI era.

If you listen to the people creating the AI applications, the opportunity is simple. Create technologies which take care of the time-consuming, monotonous tasks, freeing up staff to concentrate on tasks which add more value and revenue to operations. This is an optimistic view. The pessimist (or realist) would suggest business owners and management teams would use the technology to tackle the biggest overhead of any organization; us.

The smaller a workforce, generally the more profitable a business is proportionately. Amazon knows this, it is investing in cashier-less supermarkets and robots to run its completion centres, while public transportation services have been offloading jobs in favour of technology for decades. When there is an opportunity to spend less money but make the same amount, businessmen would bite your hand off.

At the Future Ready press conference last week, Vodafone unveiled an interesting idea. Those who are at risk of losing their jobs to the automation craze, customer service agents, will be reskilled as coders and developers.

Known as the Code Ready initiative, it is a great idea on the surface. Retraining employees to take advantage of the fast growing craze which could eventually make them redundant, though we have our reservations. Coding it complicated and not for everyone. You have to be a very specific type of person with quite a tailored education to suit the role, and we wonder how many of those who work in Vodafone call centres meet the criteria.

Without sounding disrespectful to the employees currently in the call centres, coding to the specifications and quality Vodafone needs to ensure its software, services and applications meet the demands of the cut-throat digital economy will be a challenging task. Perhaps the technology orientated universities or app trade shows would be a better place to look than the customer service centres.

Neil Blagden, Director of Digital & Commercial Operations at Vodafone UK, will point to TOBi, Vodafone’s customer care virtual assistant, as precedent for the initiative. Six customer service agents contributed to the development of TOBi, though we suspect the heavy lifting and critical aspects we completed by those who have a bit more experience than these six.

Applications such as TOBi have the power to make a genuine difference to operations. Not only is the Vodafone customer care operation more efficient since TOBi, Net Promoter Score has been growing as well. Clearly there is an advantage to integrating such technologies, though a poorly constructed application will only lead to frustration and customer churn. To avoid this scenario, Vodafone will need to ensure it is hiring the best people possible.

The idea is a nice one, but we suspect it is nothing more than a shallow publicity pitch from the Nathan Barley wannabees in the marketing and PR team. There might be a few success stories, but these will only be pumped as gloss to sheen over the redundancies the firm is bound to make as automation takes a stronger grip.

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