The New Edge: Unpacking Cognitive Automation

Gail Evans, Global Chief Digital Officer, Mercer
Gail Evans, Global Chief Digital Officer, Mercer

Gail Evans, Global Chief Digital Officer, Mercer

Rapidly evolving digital technologies are enabling many new business models as well as operating efficiencies which afford leaders multiple options to solve their customers’ pain points.

At Mercer, we faced a similar situation. In 2016, we created a digital technology transformation vision and a set of strategies to better understand and leverage our data, explore new technologies like AI and Cognitive Automation, grow our business, and focus on client experience. We established our Technology Garage to unpack and apply these new technologies, experimenting in house and co-creating with vendor partners and startups along the way. We also launched Knowledge Fabric, our big data platform and a process automation-ready operating environment, to allow our data scientists to interrogate our data to extract valuable insights.

Important key learnings emerged from our journey with Cognitive Automation as we experimented with real-world projects of various scale, engaging with a variety of technologies, partners and clients.

NLP, conversational systems and virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and chatbots can be extremely useful and efficient when engaging with customers or employees 

We focused on three areas of CA, and it helps to think of them in terms of the business needs they can address:

RPA (Robotic Process Automation), a cost-efficiency program to help automate various repetitive back-end administrative processes, freeing employees to attend to more complex tasks

AI (through machine learning algorithms and data and analytics), to help gain insights and offer solutions to business problems

NLP (Natural Language Processing), conversational systems and virtual assistants, to help engage with employees and clients

Applying RPA and machine learning to our clients’ and business processes’ pain points has been critical to our journey. We started by establishing a data platform (data ingestion) to connect data across external (i.e. from social media) and internal systems (like CRM). We also created algorithmic services to connect to and enrich our automation processes, resulting in several predictive algorithms for client retention, through BI tools and data visualization. While this particular project has been implemented by our in-house team, we have extended our journey to financial and health-related algorithms through partnerships with external vendors. Starting internally helped us jump start our conversation with vendors and know what to look for.

NLP, conversational systems and virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and chatbots can be extremely useful and efficient when engaging with customers or employees. For example, a service center chatbot can perform simple transactions or fulfill requests for information by walking a customer through a change of address or answering questions around Open Enrollment. Automating large volumes of simple and repetitive tasks can lead to big gains in operational efficiencies and free up employees for more important, complex tasks.

So, what can Cognitive Automation do for you?

Before implementing CA (or any new technology for that matter), you have to know the problem you want to solve. Technology is a tool to be applied to real business challenges and opportunities. Use Agile methodology and Design Thinking to create a hypothesis, a concept you’d like to prove. At Mercer, we use Design Thinking innovation sessions with our clients to help identify our customer’s pain points. We also host Annual Vendor Innovation Contests with our vendor partners to crowdsource ideas and conceptualize them into potential solutions, using a 60-day sprint approach.

From concepts, it made sense to iterate to pilot programs. Indeed, it’s a good idea to test the concept using multiple technologies to see how CA would work and what value, if any, it would yield. Our benefit service center chatbot for Open Enrollment was one of those programs.

The results, thus far, have been impressive. During the last Open Enrollment season, the self-service chatbot was rolled out to over 150 clients, has proven +80% effective in resolving customer inquiries and has resulted in positive operational savings. We kept the scope narrow, which allowed us to move fast and react quickly to customer needs, while providing valuable self-service options, especially outside of business hours.

Targeted experiments and user journeys like this helped us build an ecosystem of technologies, frameworks, and partners that, based on agile methodologies, allow us to build, buy or co-create with partners effectively to grow our business. We now have reusable components on our “Digital Shelf”.

There are also some challenges that come with adopting CA, not the least of which is integrating it with your existing systems. The technology and the expertise to run it can also be expensive. Then there is the mapping of old processes to new ones at enough detail to automate and addressing culture change management.

To bridge that gap, we began classroom training for our employees using a curriculum from an outside vendor and internal experts. Educating our colleagues about CA and process automation helped them make the transition and propel our business into the future. As a bonus, digital literacy leads to colleagues contributing new ideas to advance our business, creating an organic pipeline of ideas for new initiatives – human + technology.

As we push against the edges of innovation, we realize that there are ethical boundaries. Algorithms can be written with biases. So, we have established a data governance and quality process to capture and address those biases at the earliest stages of the algorithm-building process.

Start your CA journey by exploring operational efficiencies and expand to more strategic programs that work to drive revenue or customer experience. Before you do, though, establish a core set of frameworks and design principles, as well as educational tools to help the learning curve. Why not set up your own Technology Garage?

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