Cautious Optimism Marks the Adoption of AI at Proximus

Dominique Leroy, CEO and Member of the Board, Proximus in conversation with Rajesh Krishnamurthy, President and Head of Energy, Utilities, Telecommunications and Services, Infosys.

Q (Rajesh Krishnamurthy): Automation and artificial intelligence are seen as the next game-changers for organizations. They are already reshaping industries such a manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, among others. How do you envision AI transforming telecom – an industry that is already in the midst of transformation?
A (Dominique Leroy): Automation, both of processes and decision-making, has always been a way to optimize our operations. Whether we talk about the correlation of incident-tickets to detect general outages, the automation of our provisioning flow, to the zero-touch configuration of a modem at the moment it is connects to our network.
So automation is not a new topic. However, we see today that the ecosystem enabling Artificial Intelligence is evolving rapidly based on the availability of cheap and massive computing power, IoT gathering massive amount of data, often real time, and new possibilities in analytics.
Like with all new technologies, it is important to keep the objective in mind. We don’t have the ambition to implement Artificial Intelligence in all of our processes, just for the sake of doing so. Nonetheless I’m convinced that we will need the capabilities of automation and AI to further increase our efficiency and agility, as well as to offer a very high degree of personalized customer interaction. Next to that, AI will need to help us deal with the growing complexity coming from exactly the transformations you mentioned.
So, I look at technological innovation in general as an opportunity. The telecommunications industry should embrace the future, and by being early – and we could play an important role. Proximus is well placed to be a key enabler of AI itself for other industries as well – offering virtualized infrastructure with our LoRa IoT network, and anonymized datasets through our brokering platform, EnCo (Enabling Company).

Q Accuracy, speed, process and cost efficiencies, and scalability are some of the immediate benefits of AI (Automation, RPA, Machine Learning techniques) that industries are beginning to experience. What are the new kinds of AI-driven services in telecom that you see emerging?
A There are three major application areas where we believe Artificial Intelligence could play a beneficial role.
First, AI can help solve business challenges by reducing complexity and giving people better information and insights to take better decisions faster. We see a lot of opportunities on internal optimization and operational efficiency, like you mention. This concerns the maintenance and optimization of our networks and platforms or IT helpdesk automation. In our customer operations division, we’re investigating machine learning and prescriptive analytics for field interventions with a ‘First Time Right’ objective.
Secondly, we also look at AI as an enabler of a better and more personalized customer experience. Concepts like voice-driven IVR and virtual customer assistants are being analyzed for simple customer interactions. It’s essential here that AI is fully integrated into enterprise’s systems, such as CRM tools, knowledge management, and billing and ordering systems in order to offer a single customer experience through all channels.
And finally, we look at AI as an enabler for new revenue streams. As said before, we want to build on our assets, such as our EnCo (Enabling Company) platform, to support our corporate customers in their own transformation and to leverage new business.

Q One principle of Proximus’ Fit for Growth (Good to Gold) strategy is “simplifying at all levels”. What has been the role of automation and AI in this organizational renewal?
A One of the pillars of our Fit for Growth strategy is to become a fitter organization and bring down our operating costs while increasing customer and employee satisfaction. To this end, we are driving simplification and efficiency at all levels in the organization. So far we’ve been simplifying our network and platforms, for example by means of virtualization; our product offerings for our customers and our internal processes. AI can support us in all these domains.
Typically we have been automating simple, repetitive tasks, freeing up time for people to invest in more value added interactions. We will certainly continue to do so, now that AI expands the scope of what is ‘simple’ for a computer.
This is not only done in the typical domain of operations or back offices but also in other customer-facing departments such as Sales, Marketing, Customer Services and supporting functions where we are investigating different use-cases.
Besides reviewing our existing processes we will also introduce new processes, technologies or infrastructure. We must then consider automation and AI from the start. For example, making sure that the architecture allows the extraction of the needed data, as well as challenging the needed human intervention present in new processes versus the cost of automation.
But simplification through AI is certainly not a given, as the technology behind AI is quite advanced. We must be cautious that AI will not become a complexity layer on top of all the other ongoing technology evolutions. There is a careful trade-off to be made – on the one hand, we want to remove complexity from our employees by means of AI, but on the other hand, we want to remain in control and not blindly depend on a chain of black boxes. This trade-off will vary depending on the application, and we will have to learn the optimal balance on the go.

Q Proximus is looking to transform itself into a “digital services provider”. AI will be obviously playing a significant role in every phase of this journey. Could you share some developments, insights, and even learning around this?
A The journey of becoming a Digital Service Provider is threefold.
First, it is about digitizing our current business and delivering a superior digital-first customer experience. Secondly, we are transforming our core networks and IT systems to deliver more and more services from the Cloud through virtual network functions and automating what can be. Lastly, we will develop new digital services, for both our residential and professional customers. In particular for our enterprise customers, we want to create a new digital eco-system, open to partnerships and collaboration with new emerging players, and offer our customers new application-led and service-oriented solutions, like a smart home, smart cities, smart mobility, new ways of working, smart retail.
This transformation to become a digital services provider brings about a number of challenges. I’d like to highlight just two major ones.
At the technological level, we are investing in strict data-architecture and governance throughout the company in order to become a data-driven organization. But the biggest challenge is adoption. Adoption of new digital tools by our customers, where it is our job to ensure superior customer experience through intuitive design, as well as adoption by our employees – they must be convinced about the capabilities of AI and how it will improve the quality of their work.
We should definitely not underestimate the change management journey, involving changes in our ways of working, thinking, and doing. The success of becoming a data-driven company will depend on change managers just as much as it will on data scientists.

Q There is widespread angst about loss of jobs due to automation. Adoption of robotics and AI itself will create new kinds of roles, especially in the area of robotic maintenance. On the other hand, with resources freed up from mundane jobs, there will be opportunity to enhance human talent to improve services, for example. What is your view on repurposing talent through re-training and up-skilling vis-à-vis the telecom industry?
A Automation and AI will mainly impact people that today do repetitive jobs, typically prone for automation. Just remember that a little more than 20 years ago, most of our revenues were coming from fixed voice. In a sector that is evolving so fast, re-training and up-skilling is a constant.
On the other hand, AI will augment what humans are doing. Machines excel in speed, cost and consistency. But humans have capabilities that machines do not have: to handle very complex tasks in a very broad area, and superior social ability. Embracing the full capabilities of working with AI will certainly bring a competitive advantage as it will allow our employees to focus on human interactions.
I strongly believe that human-to-human interactions are key in our lives and it will remain so – and no robot or machine can compete with human creativity, social ability, and empathy. This means we need to keep building strong emotional links with our customers – enabling great human interactions that bring value to our customers – if we want Proximus to remain a strong and relevant brand in people’s lives.

Rajesh Krishnamurthy: Thank you Dominique for your insights. Automation and AI are reshaping the telecommunications industry, as organizations look to achieve greater efficiency, even as they deliver new services. It is also helping companies like Proximus lead the way with innovative, insights-driven offerings, and personalized experiences.