Guest Column | April 9, 2018

What Our AI Perceptions Today Say About Our Plans For The Future

By Tom Paquin, Research Analyst, Service Management, Aberdeen

Field Service AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been the buzzword du jour over the last few years, unseating IoT as the technology darling making its way into ad copy across field service technology providers. We’ve reached a point where most firms are aware of how AI can support their business conceptually, but only a fraction have put AI-powered solutions into practice today. Given that fact, now seems like the ideal time to take a look at how AI is really perceived by field service professionals.

Aberdeen reached out to more than 200 field service professionals in an effort to understand what they think about AI, and where they’re currently or considering using it. We then benchmarked this against other industries to see how field service professionals compare.

AI, as a concept, is packed with so much baggage that I was particularly curious about how it’s perceived. Specifically, how do organizations expect AI to be actualized into their systems? Is it another technology tool, like CRM, BPM, or ERP, or is it representative of a real paradigm shift like mobile, the internet, or personal computers? Companies in all disciplines are just about split on that question — 50 percent say yes, AI is as big a disruptor as the internet. Interestingly, when we look at just field service professionals, the number jumps from 50 percent to 70 percent.

When we think about other game changers like the internet or mobile devices, the interesting difference is that these technologies are centralized, and the solutions that they power branch out from the capabilities that they provide. Websites and email wouldn’t exist without the internet; mobile apps wouldn’t exist without mobile devices, and so on.

AI is the inverse — organizations will not invest in a Mecha-CIO; some sort of central robot brain that runs the entirety of their business with systems that branch off of it (at least not today). They’ll invest in software that’s powered by artificial intelligence in some form. That’s what’s interesting — AI is more akin to a programming language than a platform, a complement to systems rather than a driver of their creation (again, at least that’s how it is today).

Even beyond that, service firms were much more bullish: 72 percent see AI as a central tool in their technology arsenal (Compared to 45 percent for all companies), 60 percent feel that AI is powerful enough in its current state to power business processes (compared to 28 percent), and 66 percent say that there are enough use cases to justify an AI solution, compared to just 19 percent for all organizations.

This begs the question — Why are field service professionals so much more optimistic about Artificial Intelligence? What makes service more amenable to AI when compared to, say, sales, HR, or security?

To understand this, it’s useful to look at what makes good AI. When asked that very question in our study, the answer was overwhelmingly clear — Good AI requires good data inputs. Owing itself to the advancements in IoT, GPS, and smart software offerings, most service firms are building a solid foundation of data generators for their AI solutions to reference.

Broadly speaking in service, data flows from one of three major sources: the customer, the serviceable asset, or the technician. This offers a variety of solid points of data collection, whether from customer inquiry, historical scheduling and routing data, or output and status from connection to sensor data. How this is interpreted will depend on what combination of AI-powered technologies are actually used.

When asked what capabilities field service managers are currently using or considering employing AI for, the #1 use case was task automation. Predictive/prescriptive maintenance closely followed. These two capabilities help explain a bit of the optimism that organizations feel around artificial intelligence. Even without sophisticated AI algorithms, these systems are becoming well established in service today. Take task automation—whether it be with respect to fleet management, administrative tasks, or on-site workflows, the blueprints aren’t just in place, they’re in practice. Machine learning and AI systems embedded in these technologies will only enhance their abilities. On top of that, seeing as there are already variations of solutions in place, implementation is nearly frictionless.

It’s clear, then, that the future of AI in service is bright, and field service managers are beginning to see how this new tech will fit into their existing workflows. Maybe that CIO mega-brain is around the corner, but this is the first step.