With its innately broad scope, the professional services industry is one which artificial intelligence has the potential to influence in many different ways. Having already spoken to Michael Rendell of PwC, AI Business were excited to hear from another of the ‘Big Four’, Ernst & Young, to find out their position on AI and their strategy for keeping up in this competitive market.
Robert Zampetti is a thought leader on the future of the HR Function working in EY’s People Advisory Services Practice, currently based in London.
He has over 20 years’ experience delivering global HR transformation projects, with focuses including agile, lean methodology, digital disruption and leveraging the latest cloud technology and robotic engineering.
Robert Zampetti of EY
We begin the conversation by taking a step back from professional services to consider the potential of AI to change the landscape of business overall. Robert speaks of AI not in terms of evolution, but in terms of revolution:
“This whole arena that we are broadly calling artificial intelligence is actually a sea change, it’s not a bolt-on; it’s more profound – it’s the culmination of the information revolution; just like assembly lines became a paradigm in the industrial era, artificial intelligence will become a paradigm in the information era”.
Robert adds that this view is held widely at EY:
“At EY we actually think that the promise of AI created by human beings will have the kind of impact that will require us to rethink how we work entirely, because it is a disruptive technology and by its very nature will disrupt and change the way we go about business.
“But we can only really talk about it right now by way of example – it hasn’t crystallised into a new total algorithm for working. What we have is different aspects – neural networks, pattern recognition, etc – and each of these things is descriptive of a different way of thinking and doing, but it hasn’t matured yet into something with a common underlying essence; we are still in that disruptive period”.
Like with any paradigm shift, Robert says, there will be two groups that respond very differently to the change. “You have companies that get on board with it, and they have a lot of false starts, but they keep going because they recognise the step change, and you’ll have companies that don’t – they’ll see AI features as add-ons, whereas those who succeed will see it as a fundamental change in the way that they operate”.
We agree that businesses that resist the adoption of AI altogether will have separate challenges of their own at some point down the line – but what about the challenges facing those companies looking to implement AI now?
“A lot of these challenges came out at The AI Summit, which was one of the things that I really loved”, Robert notes. “We’ve discussed the first challenge – the mindset. It’s not about doing what we used to and putting a robot on it. With driverless cars, you’re not just replacing the driver with a robot, you’re rethinking the way our entire network of roads operates. There is a huge opportunity to blow up the paradigm – the signs can be intelligent, the road lines can be. It’s not about adding an intelligent agent”.
The second challenge is also on a human level. “We need to address how human beings interact with their robot partners”, Robert says. “We keep trying to design robots to interact well with humans, and that’s a noble goal. But until we have a robot that’s perfectly human, and I think that’s a long way off, how do we train the humans to work well with something that’s less than human?”
So there is an extent to which humans have to meet robots in the middle, understand their imperfections and co-operate. Robert agrees: “a good way to look at it is to think of robots as five-year-olds right now; they’re past the toddler stage, but they’re not adolescent yet. We are going to go culturally through a curve – and this is sector by sector. As ‘parents’ we must ask ourselves: how do I act with a five-year-old compared with how I will act with an adolescent?”
Discussion turns to EY itself – and the company’s strategy for AI in both the short- and long-term.
“Over the course of the next year what you’ll see at EY is the latest techniques and developments in the AI disciplines, and the application of those techniques across different sectors. In the energy sector, for example, we are helping our clients achieve next gen solutions as a result of smart meter readings. All of our initiatives are currently domain specific, but in the longer term they will gain cross-industry experience”.
Interestingly, Robert also points out the longer term internal concerns about AI at EY, and in the consulting sector as a whole:
“Every time an AI team at EY meets and shares information, there are concerned faces worrying about the future. Why? I think they’re beginning to understand that in the longer term we will realise the promise of an agent that gets answers to questions and offers solutions – the very capability that is at the core of what people pay consulting firms for. So as that becomes more of a commodity in different areas (and it won’t happen overnight) it will begin to erode.
“In other words: today someone might hire EY to do a three-month project to gather information, analyse and make recommendations. There are resources and revenue there, but you can see how AI will impact that. You can get some of the revenue for the access to the intelligent agent, but actually the agent will be able to get that information quicker and be far less expensive than the project work and will require far fewer human resources.
“Longer term we know that’s the future and we need to figure out where our business value then resides”.
As a thought leader in People Advisory Services, you might think Robert is not the typical interviewee for finding out his company’s AI strategy and positioning. We have spoken to Heads of Transformation and Innovation Managers, as well as those in more technical roles such as Lead Data Scientist or Lead Data Architect, but less has come from the HR side.
“That’s my point”, Robert says. “You wouldn’t normally. But EY only put the people advisory team together last October because we think that AI will have a profound impact on the workforce itself, and that’s key. If you just think you’re adding the latest tech to your business then you’ve got it wrong – it’s a change to the entire infrastructure of a business and the people that work there”.
We spoke to Robert after he attended the inaugural AI Summit in London on 5 May. The second, larger AI Summit takes place in San Francisco on 28-29 September. To find out more, and to join us at the Fort Mason Center in September, visit: theaisummit.com