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Curb Appeal: Automating Tech Infrastructure to Optimise Delivery

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During this pandemic, shoppers who have experienced new forms of delivery direct from manufacturers, curbside pickup and eCommerce via wholesalers will likely adopt at least some of those habits in their everyday lives in future. Why? Ease of use, convenience, hygiene and guaranteed product availability, all factor into this shift.

Most retailers were not ready for a rush of online shoppers or structured for a Buy Online Pickup In-Store (BOPIS) model. They struggled to pivot with their own delivery set-up, both in terms of staffing and infrastructure. Delivery slots were rare and required midnight countdowns to the next day’s set of slots with online confusion. Many grocery retailers initially stopped curbside deliveries due to lack of resources for fulfilment in store.

And for SME retail outlets, square meterage limits the number of customers inside at a time and social distancing measures limit handling curbside pickups.  Supply chain issues and inventory management also played a role, with local inventory visibility a real factor in determining order placement.

As shown in Figure 1, Ecosystm research shows that supply chain optimisation and demand forecasting are both listed in the top five business solutions that firms in retail consider using AI for.Business Solutions for AI Adoption - Retail Industry

Hybrid Operations

How can retail firms, with both perishable and non-perishable goods, use AI, automation and other infrastructural investments to develop the near-term future of curbside retail? We suggest the use of hybrid operations.

Retailers are starting to look at developing hybrid operations: part retail space and part fulfilment centre.  Allowing customers to enter only part of the store or pulling inventory off the shelf to a different part of the store for deliveries expands reach and allows fulfilment without decreasing the experience for customers who prefer to shop in-store. But it requires an IT infrastructural upgrade to make it happen.

In the medium term, leveraging automation will be one of the ways supermarkets and other retailers evolve their models to remain viable and profitable.

What can be automated?

Let’s define these automated delivery infrastructural options:

  • Curbside pickup is the endpoint of manual sorting and selecting operation, and then the goods are ready for pickup with a vehicle outside the store.
  • Micro-fulfilment centres are locations with a logistics company to maximise space in traditional stores and expand online options. Micro-fulfillment helps retailers solve the labour and last-mile costs conundrum as it brings the goods closer to the end customer.
  • Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfilment centres.

None of these concepts are new, but as alternatives to traditional retail in the current environment, they are viable options. Having curbside pickup, micro-fulfilment centres or dark stores help ease transitions towards traditional operations while still protecting customers and employees.  Figure 2 from our AI research at Ecosystm shows that better customer experience is a top short-term driver in retail AI deployment.

Restructuring the three factors of production

By using AI and inventory automation, retailers can focus on rightsizing the three factors of production:

  • Labour. Reducing the staffing cost to produce the same volume of sales.
  • Inventory. Giving the retailer the tools to replenish stores with more specific information on consumption and wastage.
  • Physical Space. Enabling dynamic adjustments of product display allows alignment more closely with sales patterns within the physical store. This can be adjusted for within the week and even by day.

Retailers are looking to speed delivery by dispersing inventory closer to customers. They use automation to build more compact distribution operations by using hybrid operations.

Designing hybrid operations with technology

To develop a hybrid operation, what IT infrastructural elements need to be addressed?

Store layout.  Hybrid operations should drive efficiency in delivery, based on time and motion, but without impacting in-store shoppers.  Order pulling should structurally happen towards the back of the store, both for efficiency and ease of access to move goods. To maintain product quality, networks and sensors need to be installed.

Process training. Hybrid operations are system dependent. Skilled staff who pick items for delivery require systems that implement standard procedures for selection and bundling. Processes require system automation for checks to mitigate high levels of wastage. Operational implementations need to include systems that manage cut-off times and back-room management.

Order management and inventory management systems. Analytics help retailers to stock popular items. They can then ensure these are easily accessible both front and back of the store. Retailers need to prioritise inventory management to make the most of inventory visibility across hybrid operations.  SKUs and barcodes should be simple, consistent and unique.

Learning from innovative IT models in Grocery

In California, Sysco expanded its direct-to-the-consumer pop-up format to help give shoppers in the area access to fresh grocery items.  Whole Foods expanded its dark store concept in Texas in combination with Amazon.  Aldi in the UK rolled out an online program to distribute grocery parcels to consumers who were self-isolating, with 22 different goods in the bundle including toilet paper and anti-bacterial gel.

Market ownership will come from a better shopping experience. Streamlining processes and automating order fulfilment using IT in a hybrid retail operation could help lessen the financial and logistical strain of maintaining social distancing and proper hygiene measures.

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Singapore Empowers SMEs to Go Digital

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We are increasingly seeing digital becoming a priority as governments look at socio-economic recovery. It is not just imperative that countries push the adoption of digital technologies – the crisis has also presented an opportunity for them to do so. In March this year, when governments across the world had started announcing stimulus packages designed to keep the economy afloat, Ecosystm Principal Advisor Tim Sheedy had said in his blog, Government Should Focus Coronavirus Stimulus on Digital Initiatives, “Good stimulus packages will have a broad impact but also drive improved business and employment outcomes. Stimulus packages have an opportunity to drive change – and the COVID-19 virus has shown that some businesses are not well equipped for the digital era.”

The pandemic has fast demonstrated the power of being aligned to the digital economy. Ecosystm CEO Amit Gupta says, “Organisations that were digital-ready were able to manage their business continuity almost immediately in enabling a remote workforce. The transfer was almost seamless for such businesses as the teams had already imbibed the principles of remote collaboration and were already familiar with tools that enable collaboration and communication. For many of these organisations, it was almost a matter of employees packing up their work-issued laptop and heading home.”

“In addition, those that were fully digitalised were better prepared to continue not only interacting with their clients remotely but also in many cases were able to deliver their offerings to their customers through their website or mobile apps.”

Gupta also notes that Ecosystm research shows that before the COVID-19 outbreak only about 35% of SMEs considered themselves ready for the digital economy, compared to half of the large enterprises. “This needs to change – and change fast!”

Singapore’s Digital Government Blueprint

In Singapore’s Digital Government Blueprint that supports its Smart Nation vision, digitalisation is positioned as a key pillar for public service transformation. The focus for business stakeholders in this journey includes co-creating and facilitating the adoption of technologies (Figure 1).Singapore Digital Government Blueprint

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often struggle with going digital because of lack of resources – both financial and skills – and vision. In a country such as Singapore, where SMEs are estimated to account for 99% of all enterprises and 77% of employment, it is imperative that the Digital Economy vision includes a special focus on them.

Gupta says, “Despite significant incentives, there has been resistance from SMEs to go digital as it still involves time and monetary investment from them. The need to retrain and upskill their teams is also a perceived roadblock to the uptake.”

Singapore Empowering SMEs to go Digital

As the Government looks to open the economy up in a phased manner, it sees this as the right opportunity to make SMEs digital-ready. It is “seizing the moment” and has established the SG Digital Office (SDO) in an effort to enable every individual, worker and business to go digital. Initiatives include the recruitment and deployment of 1,000 Digital Ambassadors by end June to provide personalised as well as small group support to seniors and owners of local eateries, who require additional assistance to adopt digital solutions and technology.

In 2018, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had launched SGQR to unify the fragmented e-payment landscape in the country, making it compatible with 27 payment schemes. The SDO aims to drive SMEs (especially in the F&B sector) to adopt SGQR codes for e-payments. The goal is to engage 18,000 stallholders of local eateries (hawker centres, wet markets, coffee shops and industrial canteens) to have the unified e-payment solution by June 2021. Further, multiple government agencies – IMDA, National Environment Agency (NEA), Jurong Town Corporation, Housing Development Board (HDB) and Enterprise Singapore – come together to offer a bonus of SGD 300 per month over five months to encourage more F&B SMEs to adopt e-payments.

“Financial Inclusion is one of the mainstays of a progressive economy. Given the significant investment that has gone into the e-payments infrastructure by government agencies led by MAS, we are placed well compared to other nations,” says Gupta. “However, there is work to be done in certain demographics and sectors. The drive to support F&B outlets and local eateries to get on the bandwagon will be an exceptional step and will be well received by consumers.”

 

“There are only a handful of governments that can compare with what the Singapore Government has put in place when it comes to initiatives to drive the uptake of technology by SMEs. This current crisis may well become the catalyst for SMEs to recognise the urgency of getting digital-ready and they should use this as an opportunity to leverage the government support around technology adoption and emerge as digital-savvy organisations.”

 

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Tech Spotlight for May – Cybersecurity

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In his blog, The Cybercrime Pandemic, Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Andrew Milroy says, “Remote working has reached unprecedented levels as organisations try hard to keep going. This is massively expanding the attack surface for cybercriminals, weakening security and leading to a cybercrime pandemic. Hacking activity and phishing, inspired by the COVID-19 crisis, are growing rapidly.” Remote working has seen an increase in adoption of cloud applications and collaborative tools, and organisations and governments are having to re-think their risk management programs.

We are seeing the market respond to this need and May saw initiatives from governments and enterprises on strengthening risk management practices and standards. Tech vendors have also stepped up their game, strengthening their Cybersecurity offerings.

Market Consolidation through M&As Continues

The Cybersecurity market is extremely fragmented and is ripe for consolidation. The last couple of years has seen some consolidation of the market, especially through acquisitions by larger platform players (wishing to provide an end-to-end solution) and private equity firms (who have a better view of the Cybersecurity start-up ecosystem). Cybersecurity providers continue to acquire niche providers to strengthen their end-to-end offering and respond to market requirements.

As organisations cope with remote working, network security, threat identification and identity and access management are becoming important. CyberArk acquired Identity as a Service provider Idaptive to work on an AI-based identity solution. The acquisition expands its identity management offerings across hybrid and multi-cloud environments. Quick Heal invested in Singapore-based Ray, a start-up specialising in next-gen wireless and network technology. This would benefit Quick Heal in building a safe, secure, and seamless digital experience for users. This investment also shows Quick Heal’s strategy of investing in disruptive technologies to maintain its market presence and to develop a full-fledged integrated solution beneficial for its users.

Another interesting deal was Venafi acquiring Jetstack.  Jetstack’s open-source Kubernetes certificate manager controller – cert-manager – with a thriving developer community of over 200 contributors, has been used by many global organisations as the go-to tool for using certificates in the Kubernetes space. The community has provided feedback through design discussion, user experience reports, code and documentation contributions as well as serving as a source for free community support. The partnership will see Venafi’s Machine Identity Protection having cloud-native capabilities.   The deal came a day after VMware announced its intent to acquire Octarine to extend VMware’s Intrinsic Security Capabilities for Containers and Kubernetes and integrate Octarine’s technology to VMware’s Carbon Black, a security company which VMware bought last year.

Cybersecurity vendors are not the only ones that are acquiring niche Cybersecurity providers. In the wake of a rapid increase in user base and a surge in traffic, that exposed it to cyber-attacks (including the ‘zoombombing’ incidents), Zoom acquired secure messaging service Keybase, a secure messaging and file-sharing service to enhance their security and to build end-to-end encryption capability to strengthen their overall security posture.

Governments actively working on their Cyber Standards

Governments are forging ahead with digital transformation, providing better citizen services and better protection of citizen data.  This has been especially important in the way they have had to manage the COVID-19 crisis – introducing restrictions fast, keeping citizens in the loop and often accessing citizens’ health and location data to contain the disaster. Various security guidelines and initiatives were announced by governments across the globe, to ensure that citizen data was being managed and used securely and to instil trust in citizens so that they would be willing to share their data.

Singapore, following its Smart Nation initiative, introduced a set of enhanced data security measures for public sector. There have been a few high-profile data breaches (especially in the public healthcare sector) in the last couple of years and the Government rolled out a common security framework for public agencies and their officials making them all accountable to a common code of practice. Measures include clarifying the roles and responsibilities of public officers involved in managing data security, and mandating that top public sector leadership be accountable for creating a strong organisational data security regime. The Government has also empowered citizens to raise a flag against unauthorised data disclosures through a simple incident report form available on Singapore’s Smart Nation Website.

Australia is also ramping up measures to protect the public sector and the country’s data against threats and breaches by issuing guidelines to Australia’s critical infrastructure providers from cyber-attacks. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) especially aims key employees working in services such as power and water distribution networks, and transport and communications grids. In the US agencies such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have issued guidelines on safeguarding the country’s critical infrastructure. Similarly, UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issued cybersecurity best practices for Industrial Control Systems (ICS).

Cyber Awareness emerges as the need of the hour

While governments will continue to strengthen their Cybersecurity standards, the truth is Cybersecurity breaches often happen because of employee actions – sometimes deliberate, but often out of unawareness of the risks. As remote working becomes a norm for more organisations, there is a need for greater awareness amongst employees and Cybersecurity caution should become part of the organisational culture.

Comtech received a US$8.4 million in additional orders from the US Federal Government for a Joint Cyber Analysis Course. The company has been providing cyber-training to government agencies in the communications sector. Another public-private partnership to raise awareness on Cybersecurity announced in May was the MoU between Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) and Capgemini Netherlands. With this MoU, Capgemini and Europol are collaborating on activities such as the development of cyber simulation exercises, capacity building, and prevention and awareness campaigns. They are also partnered on a No More Ransomware project by National High Tech Crime Unit of the Netherlands’ Police, Kaspersky and McAfee to help victims fight against ransomware threats.

The Industry continues to gear up for the Future

Technology providers, including Cybersecurity vendors, continue to evolve their offerings and several innovations were reported in May. Futuristic initiatives such as these show that technology vendors are aware of the acute need to build AI-based cyber solutions to stay ahead of cybercriminals.

Samsung introduced a new secure element (SE) Cybersecurity chip to protect mobile devices against security threats. The chip received an Evaluation Assurance Level (EAL) 6+ certification from CC EAL – a technology security evaluation agency which certifies IT products security on a scale of EAL0 to EAL7. Further applications of the chip could include securing e-passports, crypto hardware wallets and mobile devices based on standalone hardware-level security. Samsung also introduced a new smartphone in which Samsung is using a chipset from SK Telecom with quantum-crypto technology. This involves Quantum Random Number Generator (QRNG) to enhance the security of applications and services instead of using normal random number generators. The technology uses LED and CMOS sensor to capture quantum randomness and produce unpredictable strings and patterns which are difficult to hack. This is in line with what we are seeing in the findings of an Ecosystm business pulse study to gauge how organisations are prioritising their IT investments to adapt to the New Normal. 36% of organisations in the Asia Pacific region invested significantly in Mobile Security is a response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The same study reveals that nearly 40% of organisations in the region have also increased investments in Threat Analysis & Intelligence. At the Southern Methodist University in Texas, engineers at Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity have created a software to detect and prevent ransomware threats before they can occur. Their detection method known as sensor-based ransomware detection can even spot new ransomware attacks and terminates the encryption process without relying on the signature of past infections. The university has filed a patent for this technique with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Microsoft and Intel are working on a project called STAMINA (static malware-as-image network analysis). The project involves a new deep learning approach that converts malware into grayscale images to scan the text and structural patterns specific to malware. This works by converting a file’s binary form into a stream of raw pixel data (1D) which is later converted into a photo (2D) to feed into image analysis algorithms based on a pre-trained deep neural network to scan and classify images as clean or infected.

 


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Digital Acceleration: Moving Forward with Cloud Automation and Intelligence

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Focused on Digital Transformation? It is now more about how fast you can react to market shifts by using specific infrastructural resources.

This period is about digital acceleration. Cloud automation, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA) and machine learning are all means to accelerate using infrastructure scalability.

Digital acceleration addresses the pace of change

Enterprises are searching to find unique and innovative ways to leverage cloud infrastructures with automation and intelligence. This is both to modernise and to optimise business processes while decreasing expenses. The speed at which the economic landscape has changed during the pandemic has removed debates on cloud usage:

  • Remote work from home (WFH) with the need for video conferencing and collaboration tools has been supported by cloud
  • Record amounts of SPAM and hacking attempts during the pandemic have leveraged cloud implementations for key security controls
  • Tracking apps and classification and encryption of personally identifiable information (PII) via mobile devices are using cloud technology for greater automation and use of AI

Bandwidth and capacity are needed now. The ability to pivot, turn and shoot forward is critical to surviving and thriving in today’s radically changed marketplace. Cloud enablement can deliver enhanced customer experiences, monetise data assets, and can create new revenue streams by enabling new business models.

Cloud enablement explained

Digital acceleration is driven by cloud enablement, amplifying the enterprise value in the infrastructural investment.

Cloud enablement is an ongoing operational model. It incorporates orchestration, correctly organising teams, and a shift away from thinking only about platforms. The cloud platform is now a launchpad, not the main choice that has to be made. Orchestration is around the business and the business model, not just the technology.

Creating a cloud enablement strategic vision can identify where you need to go. It can provide the necessary requirements for expertise along the journey and deliver rapid, meaningful automation services engagements to deliver unbreakable delivery pipelines and agile cloud operations.

But this also involves managing and adjusting on the fly. Initial platform decisions, rolling out countless configuration changes and adjusting to new cloud investments make cloud enablement a tricky road to manage. Enterprises need to be cloud-smart towards their own business model and their strategy. Whatever configuration (on-prem, hybrid, private, public) combination works is dependent on many factors, including industry, size of the enterprise, employee resources and location.

The goal is implementing secure, flexible, scalable, and cost-effective cloud solutions. To do this requires regular cloud enablement audits as to the state of play and measuring successes.

Building and maintaining modern IT

Modern IT is hybrid and all the pieces that collect and manage the data need to be properly and securely managed.  Just as technological (and economic) disruption has generally led to automation and the elimination of outdated processes, it has also always created new ideas and innovations.

One way to make your organisation more data-centric and digital is to selectively invest in those technology choices that are most adaptable and flexible to business needs. Data is the most strategic of assets and can be empowered by increasingly sophisticated intelligent operations. Process automation and AI help put that data to work by adding valued intelligence and encapsulating information.

Hybrid cloud coordination automated

Hybrid cloud coordination is an increasing enterprise demand, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, leading to enhanced data centres with joint customer support like the new Tokyo interconnection with Oracle and Microsoft Azure. The key to successfully monitoring a distributed cloud ecosystem is not only in gathering data on usage; it’s about knowing which questions to ask to make it more efficient and effective. This includes tracking connectivity speeds, creating common technical support and using single sign-on for better security. Here both AI and automation can help.

In Asia Pacific, the multi-cloud theme is being promoted heavily among integration providers with solutions that can plug into multiple clouds with virtual machine usage. Enterprises value enabled automated orchestration between cloud platforms.  There will be a continued need for integrated tools across public and private clouds.  This includes advanced analytics and AI as important aspects of an IT infrastructural investment.

Your choice of vendor for AI & Automation

In my opinion, AWS has the broadest AI service capabilities in the Asia Pacific cloud/ AI space, when compared to Microsoft, Google, and IBM. AWS provides users with pre-trained AI services for computer vision, language, recommendations, and forecasting to build, train, and deploy machine learning models at scale.

The Ecosystm VendorScope (Figure 1) rates the leading AI & Automation vendors in Asia Pacific based solely on quantifiable feedback from those who actually procure technology. It becomes clear from the responses that many organisations still start their AI journey through Automation.  Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation, Asia Pacific

Most organisations understand the importance of leveraging AI to gain competitive advantage. But they do not necessarily know where to start.  The secret is that AI is about intelligent process automation, and the firms who understand this are not the ones automating tasks. The use of RPA with vendors such as Antworks, WorkFusion, Arago and Automation Anywhere, leverages automated reasoning using knowledge-based problem-solving engines. These vendors add RPA to AI, not the other way around.

And domain-specific service providers have been creating the synergies for enterprises to link intelligent automation software and industry knowledge to create the necessary end-to-end workflows. An innate understanding of the specific business process is key to leveraging intelligent automation.

Focusing on developing a modern data supply chain process, with actionable analytics insights built into the infrastructure, can aid the development of self-service business intelligence capabilities along with visual data discovery solutions.

Cloud enablement solutions generate maximum business value by enabling IT with scalability and flexibility. This can reduce maintenance and security costs. A focus on cloud intelligence and scalability allows IT departments to concentrate more on innovative solutions, insights and systems that drive significant business growth. Now is the time, and speed is of the essence.


Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation

The full findings of the leading AI & Automation vendors for the Asia Pacific region are available for download from the Ecosystm platform. Sign up for Free to download the Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation report.

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Technology Enabling Transformation in the Utilities Industry

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In the midst of the current global crisis, the Utilities industry has had to continue to provide essential public services – through supply chain disruption, reduction of demand in the commercial sector, demand spikes in the consumer sector, change in peak profiles, remote staff management, cyber-attacks and so on. Robust business continuity planning and technology adoption are key to the continued success of Utilities companies. The Ecosystm Business Pulse Study which aims to find how organisations are adapting to the New Normal finds that 6 out of 10 Utilities companies are accelerating or refocusing the Digital Transformation initiatives after the COVID-19 outbreak, underpinning the industry’s need for technology adoption to remain competitive.

Drivers of Transformation in the Utilities Industry

The Evolving Energy Industry. As consumers become more energy-conscious, many are making changes in their usage pattern to stay off the grid as much as possible, potentially reducing the customer base of Utilities companies. This increases their reliance on renewable energy sources (such as solar panels and wind turbines) and batteries, forcing Power companies to diversify and leverage other energy sources such as biomass, hydropower, solar, wind, and geothermal. The challenge is further heightened by the fast depletion of fossil fuels – it is estimated that the world will have run out of fossil fuels in 60 years. The industry is also mandated by government regulations and cleaner energy pacts that focus on climate change and carbon emission – there are strict mandates around how Utilities companies produce, deliver and consume energy.

Business Continuity & Disaster Management. Perhaps no other industry is as vulnerable to natural disasters as Utilities. One of the reasons why the industry has been better prepared to handle the current crisis is because their usual business requires them to have a strong focus on business continuity through natural disasters. This includes having real-time resource management systems and processes to evaluate the requirement of resources, as well as a plan for resource-sharing. There is also the danger of cyber-attacks which has been compounded recently by employees who have access to critical systems such as production and grid networks, working from home. The industry needs to focus on a multi-layered security approach, securing connections, proactively detecting threats and anomalies, and having a clearly-defined incident response process.

The Need to Upgrade Infrastructure. This has been an ongoing challenge for the industry – deciding when to upgrade ageing infrastructure to make production more efficient and to reduce the burden of ongoing maintenance costs. The industry has been one of the early adopters of IoT in its Smart Grid and Smart Meter adoption. With the availability of technology and advanced engineering products, the industry also views upgrading the infrastructure as a means to mitigate some of its other challenges such as the need to provide better customer service and business continuity planning. For example, distributed energy generation systems using ‘micro grids’ have the potential to reduce the impact of storms and other natural disasters – they can also improve efficiency and quality of service because the distance electricity travels is reduced, reducing the loss of resources.

The Evolving Consumer Profile. As the market evolves and the number of Energy retailers increases, the industry has had to focus more on their consumers. Consumers have become more demanding in the service that they expect from their Utilities provider. They are increasingly focused on energy efficiency and reduction of energy consumption. They also expect more transparency in the service they get – be it in the bills they receive or the information they need on outages and disruptions. The industry has traditionally been focused on maintaining supply, but now there is a need to evaluate their consumer base, to evolve their offerings and even personalise them to suit consumer needs.

The global Ecosystm AI study reveals the top priorities for Utilities companies, that are focused on adopting emerging technologies (Figure 1). It is noticeably clear that the key areas of focus are cost optimisation (including automating production processes), infrastructure management and disaster management (including prevention).  Top Tech Priorities for Utilities Companies

Technology as an Enabler of Utilities Sector transformation

Utilities companies have been leveraging technology and adopting new business models for cost optimisation, employee management and improved customer experience. Here are some instances of how technology is transforming the industry:

Interconnected Systems and Operations using IoT

Utilities providers have realised that an intelligent, interconnected system can deliver both efficiency and customer-centricity. As mentioned earlier, the industry has been one of the early adopters of IoT both for better distribution management (Smart Grids) and for consumer services (Smart Meters). This has also given the organisations access to enormous data on consumer and usage patterns that can be used to make resource allocation more efficient.

For instance, the US Government’s Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) program aims to modernise legacy systems through the installation of advanced meters supporting two-way communication, identification of demand through smart appliances and equipment in homes and factories, and exchange of energy usage information through smart communication systems.

IoT is also being used for predictive maintenance and in enhancing employee safety. Smart sensors can monitor parameters such as vibrations, temperature and moisture, and detect abnormal behaviours in equipment – helping field workers to make maintenance decisions in real-time, enhancing their safety.

GIS is being used to get spatial data and map project distribution plans for water, sewage, and electricity. For instance, India’s Restructured Accelerated Power Development & Reforms Program (R-APDRP) government project involves mapping of project areas through GIS for identification of energy distribution assets including transformers and feeders with actual locations of high tension and low tension wires to provide data and maintain energy distribution over a geographical region. R-APDRP is also focused on reducing power loss.

Transparency and Efficiency using Blockchain

Blockchain-based systems are helping the Utilities industry in centralising consumer data, enabling information sharing across key departments and offering more transparent services to consumers.

Energy and Utilities companies are also using the technology to redistribute power from a central location and form smart contracts on Blockchain for decisions and data storage. This is opening opportunities for the industry to trade on energy, and create contracts based on their demand and supply. US-based Brooklyn Microgrid, for example, is a local energy marketplace in New York City based on Blockchain for solar panel owners to trade excess energy generated to commercial and domestic consumers. In an initiative launched by Singapore’s leading Power company, SP Group, companies can purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) through a Blockchain-powered trading platform, from renewable producers in a transparent, centralised and inexpensive way.

Blockchain is also being used to give consumers the transparency they demand. Spanish renewable energy firm Acciona Energía allows its consumers to track the origin of electricity from its wind and solar farms in real-time providing full transparency to certify renewable energy origin.

Intelligence in Products and Services using AI

Utilities companies are using AI & Automation to both transform customer experience and automate backend processes. Smart Meters, in itself, generate a lot of data which can be used for intelligence based on demographics, usage patterns, demand and supply. This is used for load forecasting and balancing supply and demand for yield optimisation. It is also being leveraged for targeted marketing including personalised messages on Smart Energy usage.

Researchers in Germany have developed a machine learning program called EWeLiNE which is helping grid operators with a program that can calculate renewable energy generation over 48 hours from the data taken from solar panels and wind turbines, through an early warning system.

Niche providers of Smart Energy products have been working with providing energy intelligence to consumers. UK start-up Verv, as an example, uses an AI-based assistant to guide consumers on energy management by tracing the energy usage data from appliances through meters and assisting in reducing costs. Increasingly, Utilities companies will partner with such niche providers to offer similar services to their customers.

Utilities companies have started using chatbots and conversational AI to improve customer experience. For instance, Exelon in the US is using a chatbot to answer common customer queries on power outages and billing.

 

While the predominant technology focus of Utilities companies is still on cost optimisation,  infrastructure management and disaster management, the industry is fast realising the power of having an interconnected system that can transform the entire value chain.

 


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Schneider Electric Partners with Australia’s Leading Edge Data Centres

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Australia’s data centre market has grown exponentially, to a large part due to the Government’s strong policies around cloud adoption. This is in line with the vision of creating a Digital Economy by 2025. Australia’s Tech Future talks about technological changes in 4 key areas including building infrastructure and providing secure access to high-quality data. Availability of local data centres is key to building better infrastructure to support the Digital Economy.

Cloud adoption, especially in the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector is expected to continue to rise. The Ecosystm Business Pulse Study shows that only 16% of Australian organisations had not increased their cloud investments after the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the economy.

Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Tim Sheedy says, “The current pandemic has highlighted the digital ‘haves and have nots’ in Australia. The NBN has helped to narrow the gap, but too many in rural and regional Australia continue to suffer the tyranny of distance. Businesses and government departments have been reluctant to relocate outside of the major cities due to the lack of internet and data centre infrastructure. Investing in data centres in rural and regional locations will not only help to close the digital divide but also remove a significant barrier that stops businesses from investing in and relocating to locations out of cities.”

Growing Australia’s Data Centre Footprint

This week, Australia’s Leading Edge Data Centres and Schneider Electric announced a AU$30 million project where Schneider Electric will provide Tier-3-designed prefabricated data centre modules for Leading Edge’s six locations in Australia. Each site will host 75 racks with 5kW power density to support computing operations and minimise data exchange delays. Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Darian Bird says, “The inaccessible nature of some sites makes them suitable for prefabricated data centres, which are plug-and-play containers that can be set up and maintained by a relatively small IT team. Standardisation in edge data centres and automation are key to remote management for anyone deploying distributed infrastructure.”

This announcement follows the news that Leading Edge has secured an investment of AU$20 million from Washington H. Soul Pattinson to construct 20 Tier-3 data centres across Australia. They have also received funding from the SparkLabs Cultiv8 2020 accelerator group. The funding will be used to build more than 20 Tier 3 data centres across regional Australia to provide faster internet speeds and direct cloud connectivity.

This will impact businesses that host mission-critical applications, and stricter uptime requirements, and is expected to benefit IoT, AgriTech and telecom industry applications.

Impact on Industry

Edge connectivity will create a seamless experience for the users to take advantage of faster computing with a local host, lower latency by taking connectivity to where operations reside, and data sovereignty by keeping data within the region, aiding in the development of Australia’s Digital Economy.

Sheedy sees this as an opportunity for primary industries. “One of the real challenges for farms and other agribusinesses investing in IoT and other tech-based solutions has been the lack of local or nearby computing infrastructure that will support applications that require low latency. Leading Edge’s investments in providing data centres in rural and regional Australia will mean these businesses can accelerate their digital transformations.”

With the simultaneous rollout of 5G, Smart City initiatives will also benefit from edge data centres. “Investment in edge infrastructure is likely to take off and follow the 5G coverage map across Australia. We will see operators take advantage of their vast network footprint and combine micro data centres with some 5G antenna locations,” says Bird. “Smart City initiatives will be made possible by 5G connected IoT devices but computing at the edge will be needed to keep, for example, public safety systems, operating in real-time. Many monitoring systems will require local data analysis to be effective.”

Bird also sees potential impacts on the Entertainment industry. “The COVID-19 restrictions and the launch of new services such as Disney+ and Binge in Australia will ensure streaming video continues its impressive growth trajectory. Even facilities such as sports stadiums are beginning to deliver in-person digital experiences to grab back attention from their online competitors. Positive user experience is crucial here and low latency is a must. We’ll see a shift towards edge computing delivered on-site as part of a distributed network. Regional data centres and local caching have always been vital for content delivery to ensure the quality of service and reduce bandwidth costs but the scale is unprecedented.”

Bird talks about potential retail opportunities in the future. “We may see anchor tenants at malls offering their excess capacity to smaller, nearby stores that need the benefits of edge but can’t justify the investment, similar to the way Amazon launched AWS.”

 

 

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Customer Momentum: Key Differentiator in the AI/Automation Market

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I’m really excited to launch our AI and Automation VendorScope! This new tool can help technology buyers understand which vendors are offering an exceptional customer experience, which ones have momentum and which are executing and delivering on their promised capabilities. The positioning of vendors in Ecosystm VendorScopes is independent of analyst bias or opinion or vendor influence – customers directly rate their suppliers in our ongoing market benchmarks and assessments.

The Evolution of the AI Market

The AI market has evolved significantly over the past few years. It has gone from a niche, poorly understood technology, to a mainstream one. Projects have moved from large, complex, moonshot-style “change the world” initiatives to small, focused capabilities that look to deliver value quickly. And they have moved from primarily internally focused projects to delivering value to customers and partners. Even the current pandemic is changing the lens of AI projects as 38% of the companies we benchmarked in Asia Pacific in the Ecosystm Business Pulse Study, are recalibrating their AI models for the significant change in trading conditions and customer circumstances.

Automation has changed too – from a heavily fragmented market with many specific – and often very simple tools – to comprehensive suites of automation capabilities. We are also beginning to see the use of machine learning within the automation platforms as this market matures and chases after the bigger automation opportunities where processes are not only simplified but removed through intelligent automation.

Cloud Platform Providers Continue to Lead

But what has changed little over the years is the dominance of the big cloud providers as the AI leaders. Azure, IBM and AWS continue to dominate customer mentions and intentions. And it is in customer mentions that the frontrunners in the VendorScope – Microsoft and IBM – set themselves apart. Not only are they important players today – but existing customers AND non-customers plan to use their services over the next 12-24 months. This gives them the market momentum over the other players. Even AWS and Google – the other two public cloud giants – who also have strong AI offerings – didn’t see the same proportions of customers and prospects planning to use their AI platforms and tools.

While Microsoft and IBM may have stolen the lead for now, they cannot expect the challengers to sit still. In the last few weeks alone we have seen several major launches of AI capabilities from some providers. And the Automation vendors are looking to new products and partnerships to take them forward.

Without the market momentum, Microsoft and IBM would still stand above the rest of the pack – just not as dramatically! Both companies are not just offering the AI building blocks, but also offer smart applications and services – this is possibly what sets them apart in an era where more and more customers want their applications to be smart out-of-the-box (or out-of-the-cloud). The appetite for long, expensive AI projects is waning – fast time to value will win deals today.

 

The biggest change in AI over the next few years will hopefully be more buyers demanding that their applications are smart out-of-the-box/cloud. AI and Automation shouldn’t be expensive add-ons – they should form the core of smart applications – applications that work for the business and for the customer. Applications that will deliver the next generation of employee and customer experiences.


Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation

The full findings of the leading AI & Automation vendors for the Asia Pacific region are available for download from the Ecosystm platform. Signup for Free to download the Ecosystm Vendorscope: AI & Automation report.

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MAXIMUS and Genesys Partner to Improve Citizen Experience

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Contact centres across industries are being challenged by the current crisis because of the high volume of inbound interactions – through voice and non-voice channels. This has been further compounded by the need to move most of their customer care agents to their homes, especially in countries that have implemented strict social distancing and lockdown measures. This is particularly challenging for the public sector because they are having to respond to an influx of citizen queries regarding COVID-19 specifically (including test centres and availability) and other related areas (information on trade and travel, economic stimulus and so on).

Public Sector Focus on Citizen Experience

Ecosystm research reveals that public sector organisations are hugely focused on citizen experience (Figure 1). But other priorities include employee experience and innovation in their service provision.

Being able to provide better and innovative service to citizens in a compliant manner is key for every public sector organisation. This has led to governments driving the uptake of cloud solutions, such as the New Zealand Government’s directive to public sector organisations that public cloud services are preferred over traditional IT systems, in order to enhance citizen experiences, streamline operations and create new delivery models. In 2018, the Singapore Government had announced the intention to use commercial cloud services in the public sector. This was fueled as much by the need to overhaul ageing infrastructure, as it was to provide exceptional citizen experience.

Public Sector Adopting Cloud Contact Centres

While the private sector is often quicker in their adoption of digital technologies for better customer experience (CX), the adoption in the public sector can be challenging due to various concerns such as legacy systems, privacy, national security, inter-departmental dependency and more. Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Audrey William says, “Most cloud contact centre solution providers today have the highest level of security wraps and certifications including country-level certifications. However, verticals such as Government, have remained concerned about security. This has not allowed them to innovate as fast as some of the other sectors on leveraging some of the best-in-class customer experience technologies.”

In the US, MAXIMUS, a government services provider company and Genesys recently announced a partnership to set up the MAXIMUS Genesys Engagement Platform, an integrated, cloud-based omnichannel contact centre solution. This was driven by the government requirement for public sector organisations to provide seamless customer experiences similar to those offered in the private sector. The platform is certified by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP). FedRAMP promotes the adoption of secure cloud services across the US Federal Government, in partnership with federal agencies, cloud service providers and 3rd party assessment organisations and provides the standards for security and risk assessment.

This is in line with what we see in the Ecosystm data. Government agencies that use contact centres are increasingly evaluating cloud options, with 17% saying that they operate fully on the cloud (Figure 2). While this may be difficult for all public sector organisations, with mandates around data location and security, a majority are partially on the cloud.Adoption of Cloud Contact Centre Public Sector

There are several benefits to using the cloud model including the ability to make changes and scale up/down without much customisation or professional services (which can come in handy for a quick re-alignment of the workforce) and manage seasonal spikes. Additionally, cloud solutions allow almost instantaneous access to new features and easy testing of proofs of concept. Public sector organisations are fast realising the value of cloud contact centres.

William sees the FedRAMP certification having immense potential. “FedRamp provides a secured environment for any service that is rolled out as this involves multiple levels of security. Citizens expect a more personalised service through chat, Twitter, mobile, social messaging channels like WhatsApp and many more. However, they also want to feel safe when providing personal information and want to know that the platform that holds their data is secure. When they know that security is at the highest level, they will be more open to providing personal data.”

Managing an Omnichannel Experience

Over half of public sector organisations in the Ecosystm CX study mentioned that they are driving an omnichannel experience for their customers. This has become especially relevant today, as organisations have the need to reduce the call volumes for their contact centres – through non-voice services and customer self-service. The MAXIMUS Genesys Engagement Platform will leverage Genesys Engage, which provides integrated features and functionalities across multiple channels through a single voice and digital user interface. Solutions such as these provide the ability to integrate calls, emails, chats, messages and social comments into one connected platform.

William says, “The cloud platform can help with the highest level of efficiency, scale and speed by integrating multiple channels on a single platform, for more connected customer experience. Government departments will look to leverage capabilities such as Conversational AI, in-app mobile messaging, SMS, email and voice calls within a multi secure environment. Citizens have high expectations from government departments – they expect fast, reliable and efficient service and automation. It would be difficult for governments to provide that level of service without leveraging cloud contact centre technology. That is the only way to move away from inefficient traditional architectures.”

Speaking about the adoption of cloud contact centres in the Asia Pacific region, William says, “Despite initiatives like Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency, the adoption has been relatively low in the public sector. But that has been changing fast with the COVID-19 situation forcing some government departments to move almost immediately to the cloud allowing easier changes to call workflows and other dynamic services that may have to be addressed on a daily basis.”


For more insights on Ecosystm’s ongoing research on business and technology priorities in Contact Centres
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PropTech: Driving Digital Transformation in the Wake of COVID-19

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COVID-19 is accelerating digital transformation activities across industries. Remote working is now standard practice and digital engagement is replacing face-to-face interaction. Cloud technology has become essential rather than an option, and rollouts of new technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and intelligent automation are being expedited.

One of the industries that offer great potential for technology-driven transformation is the property sector.

Many activities within the property ecosystem have remained unchanged for decades. There are several opportunities for digital engagement and automation in this sector, ranging from the use of robots in construction to the ‘uberisation’ of the residential property customer journey.

The processes associated with buying or renting property remain cumbersome and complex for customers. Indeed, customers engage with many different organisations throughout their residential property lifecycles. When compared to some other industries, the customer experience can be poor. Components of the journey – such as property search – offer some great experiences but other parts such as exchanging contracts can rarely be described as positive customer experiences.

Although AR and virtual reality (VR) technologies can facilitate property inspection, most inspections are still undertaken on-premise, together with a real estate agent. Contract exchanges often involve interactions with legal professionals in-person. Securing a mortgage or a rental agreement also typically requires face-to-face interaction. Deposits commonly necessitate the physical presentation of a cheque.

The Uberisation of the Property Sector

So, in the residential sector, there are clear opportunities for start-ups and property search platforms to offer greatly enhanced customer experiences. The COVID-19 crisis will speed up the rate at which digital technologies are used to automate activities throughout the residential property customer journey and to engage customers digitally.

Property search platforms such as Singapore-based PropertyGuru, have been creating innovative ways of engaging customers and extending their range of services, for many years. For PropertyGuru, its news features, mortgage calculator, and ability to search for investment properties overseas, have enabled it to offer customers more value from its platform. Its PropertyGuru Lens feature uses AR and artificial intelligence (AI) to give customers a more immersive and improved experience. In common with other real estate platforms, it offers AR and VR tools for inspections.

Today’s crisis creates opportunities for platforms such as ProperyGuru to engage customers throughout their journey. It can potentially transform the residential property business, by becoming an Uber-style platform for agents, movers, shippers, storage companies, interior designers, renovation firms and all other stakeholders within the residential property ecosystem. Subject to regulation, it could also act as a mortgage broker and an agency for the exchange of contracts. In other words, it could ‘own’ the customer journey and act as a platform for all services associated with residential property. From the customer perspective, such a platform would be a welcome way of enhancing the experience associated with buying, renting, maintaining, improving, managing, and selling residential property.

IoT and the Commercial Property Sector

From a commercial property perspective, the COVID-19 crisis can also be expected to accelerate the digitalisation of many activities associated with the construction, maintenance, and management of buildings.

According to the findings of the Ecosystm IoT Study, the Construction industry is evaluating several technology solutions that are expected to benefit the industry (Figure 1).High Traction IoT Solutions - Construction Industry

While the industry views these solutions as beneficial, the adoption has so far been low. This will change. Drones have been used to inspect the outside of tall buildings for several years, but this is not yet standard practice. Structural inspections and maintenance of buildings will be automated at a much faster rate post COVID-19. IoT technology will be used for building management. Using IoT technology for the predictive maintenance and management of lighting, climate control, elevators, security, windows and doors will become standard as firms seek to reduce human interactions. Technology that measures footfall, manages safe distancing, takes peoples’ temperatures and identifies those who enter and leave buildings will be introduced, as organisations guard against disease clusters developing within or around their premises.

In essence, the COVID-19 crisis will act as a catalyst for the digital transformation of the property sector. There is a huge opportunity to create new business models not least by offering customers a digital platform on which all of their property-related needs can be addressed. For the commercial property sector, a similar platform can be offered. Additionally, many core activities ranging from construction to building management will be automated, fully leveraging robot, AI and IoT technologies.


Milroy was recently part of a conversation with Hari V Krishnan, Group CEO of ProperyGuru Group and Ecosystm CEO, Amit Gupta. Watch the video here 👇
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