An Interview on Artificial Intelligence with Christine Ashton - CDO, Digital Office s/4 HANA Cloud

Written by EO Executives on Dec 20, 2017

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Intelligent Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP ) cloud for every company- Interview with Christine Ashton, CDO, Digital Office S/4 HANA Cloud

With continuous advancements in technology, organisations everywhere are now relying on Applications and Products (SAP) to deliver world-class enterprise resource planning (ERP) that defines the state of the art and enables innovation. With SAP ERP Cloud, SAP has again redefined the field with Intelligent ERP that sets a new standard for advanced technology.

At EO Executives we are passionate about understanding the role of Artificial Intelligence. Our Technology Practice will be publishing an Artificial Intelligence white-paper in January 2018, where we will uncover more insights like this from interviews with the industry’s top experts. Along with what it means for businesses, and how to C-Suite should be better prepared. So, stay tuned!

To extend our understanding we reached out to our network to gain some industry insights on the importance of Artificial Intelligence and the potential impact it could have on the structure of many businesses.

So, who better to reach out to than Christine Ashton, CDO, Digital Office S/4 HANA Cloud. Christine also leads the new CXO practice to help increase collaboration from C-suite leaders. She has a background in utilities, natural resources and telecommunications.

Prior to her current role, she was Global SVP Technology at Thomson Reuters and held key positions at BP, ultimately Chief Information Manager, running some of the world's largest business process and technology infrastructures, and creating some industry firsts such as the first ever carbon trade. Christine is consistently ranked in the Chief Information Officer (CIO) 100 and amongst the top 50 most influential women in UK Information Technology. 

What do you think are the current top 3 uses of AI in the Enterprise Technology sector to date?

Businesses want to create an advantage for themselves. Either by becoming more efficient or more effective in what they do or by creating opportunities that others haven’t yet envisioned. What differentiates a company is not how they execute day to day, but how they choose to react in those non-standard, complex or exceptional circumstances. Having the time to plan and respond faster than the competition, and faster than the customer expects, makes a big difference. Tools like predictive analytics, machine learning and AI not only represent some of the latest technology innovations, but they give you the ability to turn day to day business processes into a ‘real time’ intelligent business engine.

One of the biggest applications of Artificial Intelligence is in the automation of manual processes, such as invoice matching, which frees up hours of employee time which can be spent on more creative and innovative tasks. One of the most powerful things about AI is the way it helps you to use data to anticipate and plan responses to a range of situations. In manufacturing, AI can be used in real-time to correlate in-situ operating data from thousands of devices like pumps to operating curves identifying defects early, and anticipating how to optimise maintenance schedules to prevent unplanned breakdowns and production outages. When applied to supply-chain and distribution, AI can predict issues that might arise when you have a run on an item or limited stock. Intelligent ERPs are capable of leveraging machine intelligence to work up several alternative scenarios that would ensure your premium customers get supplied and you profit from the interest in your product.

Will the use of AI change the roles and responsibilities of workers in industry, and in what way?

Innovation like AI is not a new phenomenon. Agriculture was once a hugely labour-intensive industry and automation has eliminated all but 1% of the human workforce in the last 200 years. Since then wave after wave of new occupations emerge, each building on previous automation and innovation, it’s a scenario that’s been replicated across all sectors of the economy. We need to challenge ourselves to come up with the new job roles that will be created with this latest wave.

Increasingly, enterprise systems and their underlying infrastructure will be self-configuring. Gone will be the days when we manually set up a system. Artificial intelligence will help to choose the most optimal configuration settings for business processes and increasingly the most effective way to process workloads in the cloud. We will spend less time doing ground up configuration and more time accepting ‘best practice' configurations that have been selected for us.

SAP Leonardo is an out of the box set of tools using machine learning algorithms. The system finds insights which can be attached to transactions held in an organisation’s SAP ERP environment. These insights into customer behaviour such as buying habits and risk of churn are highlighted on a dashboard. This enables front line staff to manage each customer interaction and transaction in a much more informed way. Using these ways of working, existing customer service agents become an empowered ‘customer marketing team’ leveraging new insights to better target products and services to the customers that want and need them.

Also, what new roles have come out in the Enterprise Technology industry as a result of AI?

Certainly, more data scientists will be needed to create the machine learning capability in existing software and systems. There will be significant job opportunities for people who can build AI into the next generation of systems, appliances and devices. Everything that we previously electrified will need to be reconfigured. There will be countless roles of which we can barely conceive. I would argue this will create a greater number of job opportunities, although they will be higher skilled than the roles that get replaced.

How do you see AI further changing, or being pervasive, in the Enterprise Technology industry in the next 3-5 years? … Therefore, what do the C-Execs have to build into their business strategy and execution to stay ahead of the curve in an AI-driven world?

 I see this in terms of Gartner Mode 1 and Mode 2 concepts. Mode 1 is the predictable process of continuously improving and renovating in well-understood areas. Mode 2 is experimenting (in this instance using AI) to solve new problems, therefore being more innovative and bringing more value. I also see an emerging third Mode , that applies AI to co-create better products and processes (or apps) directly with customers and consumers. For example, a situation where AI can be used to “sense” the emotive response and unspoken motivations or drivers of the target customer group, and the consumer-generated data is used to smartly re-configure products, apps and processes. I call it the Auto Intelligent mode, managing change like this will be key to maintaining the agility of a digital business.

Using AI, companies can also collaborate in different ways and talk to each other more effectively. For example, in the water industry, machine-learnt smart contracts can be hosted on a blockchain to automate work orders and water provisioning in a federated supply chain model. Algorithmic trading via AI can predict the most optimal trading environment, which then automatically triggers the execution of the smart contract.

On the flip side, what are the potential risks of the use of AI in this industry? … Where relevant, what steps can be taken to mitigate the possible impacts of these AI deployments?

The main concerns seem to revolve around customer, consumer and employee data privacy and ethics, but in time, as Gen Y and Gen Z have a bigger voice in society, public attitudes and opinions around data privacy will have changed significantly. In fact, I think that the bigger risk lies in companies not moving fast enough in deploying AI, and thus they get left behind.

If there is just one piece of advice you can give to other C-level Execs regarding AI, what would that be?

Creating an advantage in ERP is about building an intelligent digital core business system that delivers three key benefits. Firstly, the most mundane tasks are standardised and automated thanks to artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics. Secondly, based on this new level of automation, virtual assistants empower people to do their jobs better. And thirdly, intelligence is not a one-way street: everyone in your business can act much faster and at a high impact based on relevant insights. Now is the time to act to make your business more intelligent.

Next steps…

What do you think Artificial Intelligence means for businesses and how should the C-Suite be better prepared? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

More about Christine:

Christine has held Global CIO/CTO/SVP/ NED digital roles for 20 years and has extensive NED and advisory board experience. She currently works as a corporate practitioner driving disruptive agendas at scale to deliver strategic value in complex information and customer driven corporations inc: Media, Information and data services, Consumer Retail and Telecomms, Oil and Gas, Energy, Utilities, Integrated Transport, Global Chemicals Manufacturing and Supply Chain.

Connect with Christine on LinkedIn here.

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