What if Artificial Intelligence takes over Business Intelligence?

‘Duel’: ‘a contest with deadly weapons arranged between two people to settle a point of honour.’ Keep the honour and replace the deadly weapons by sharp brains. In our monthly Blog ‘Duel’ MI&S is tackling topics within the controlling community by putting two thought leaders in front of each other. The winner? The controlling community! Enjoy our first Duel, January 2018.

Nick Van Maele and Erik Mannens on the impact of AI and Controlling

More and more routine tasks are being taken over by automated systems. With some degree of built-in intelligence, these ‘bots’ perform tasks that used to be human domain. As we see the computational power of AI evolve at high speed, the question arises whether more high-level tasks, such as controlling and reporting, are at stake as well. Are we on our way to the funeral of the human Controller? In this issue of ‘Duel’, we raise the question to Nick Van Maele (manager at MI&S, TriFinance) and Erik Mannens (Professor Data Science at Ghent University and Research Valorisation Director at IMEC). Will the Controller survive?

It might be a good start to first clearly define the notions of ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘business intelligence’.

Nick Van Maele: ‘Business Intelligence (BI in short) is just a part of the wider controlling task. It’s an application where you make reports based on structured data. It does nothing more than bringing the controller up from the basement to the ground floor, without adding any value yet. Only when it helps you model the future, real value is added and controlling is lifted to the top floor.’

Erik Mannens: ‘BI is rather ‘old school’, as it looks at the past: what has happened. Artificial Intelligence (AI in short) is about the past and the future, what has happened but also what is going to happen next. It should not necessarily mean imitating human intelligence. I rather see AI as ‘Augmented Intelligence’. This Augmented Intelligence can exist in two forms. In one form, it recognizes patterns from a magnitude of data. Think of machine learning. The other form goes further: when you inject semantics in these data, AI enables machines to reason for themselves.’

What is – or might be – the impact of AI on BI on Controlling?

Mannens: ‘Strong AI, where the computer imitates the entire human brain, will not have a big impact in the years to come. If we look at AI from a more narrow perspective, I look at the future differently. Think of deep neural networks capable of selecting the correct data, interpreting them and making forecasts within a very specific problem domain. Here, I believe that AI has a future in Controlling.’

Van Maele: ‘There is a difference between theory and practice. If good data would be available, AI could do a lot. But on the one hand, we have too little clean data in most controlling environments. On the other hand, there are a lot of links a controller has to make. In narrow areas like optical character recognition (OCR), AI is making inroads. But you know, real controlling has everything to do with leaving your computer. A good controller walks around in the company and understands what is really happening on the floor. By doing so, he or she links a lot of insights from a lot of different domains like finance, production, IT, while dealing also with the human aspect of things.’ 

Does that mean the controller of the future is not an endangered species?

Van Maele: ‘I would say about half of the controllers is not doing a good job. They stay behind their computer screens without adding value. Yes, they might be endangered.’

Mannens: ‘I see a huge opportunity. Repetitive jobs will be taken over by smart computers. This will free up time for the controller to really do things that add value to the company. This in turn will lead to so-called ‘micro-jobs’, where several people, all with different skill sets, will cooperate on specific tasks. A prerequisite for this system of micro-jobs is the readiness to constantly upgrade your own skillsets.’

Van Maele: ‘That will lead to a divide between those who keep stepping up the knowledge ladder, and those who do not. In my belief, it is a matter of being pro-active. Not all people with a controller title are so pro-active today. Their jobs might be in danger. It is a matter of intelligence, drive, and appetite to learn.’

(Erik Mannens L and Nick Van Maele R, picture (c) Thomas De Boever)

Artificial Intelligence working its way up the finance ladder, what elements will always remain the unique domain of humans?

Mannens: ‘Clearly: the possibility to think out-of-the-box! Innovating and looking forward: two skills that are hard to learn. This is exactly why I pledge for micro-jobs: never let one job be done by only one person, as you risk lacking some skills in the process.’

Van Maele: ‘A good controller will do what a computer fed by AI will not be capable of doing: not just adding simplicity, synthesizing and analysing, but certainly also engaging people to take action. This, in my view, will always remain a human skill.’

Another topic that might push AI into the finance room: big data…

Van Maele: ‘Humans simply lack the capacity to deal with billions of rows filled with data. But humans are capable of understanding what these data are about. I believe Big Data can deal with the immense scale of today's data sets, but it will still take humans to conceptually model these data and make abstractions.’

Mannens: ‘A controller typically has to deal with lots of heterogeneous data sets and that’s where big data solutions might come in handy.’
Van Maele: ‘And making sense of it all, or deciding which datasets are most valuable, is why we will still need good controllers.’

So, how do we define ‘good controllers’ in view of this intelligence evolution?

Van Maele: ‘When recruiting new consultants at MI&S, we mainly check for soft skills and the ability to synthesize and think analytically.’

Mannens: ‘So once again, you’d better assemble that ‘good controller’ by putting several people with different skills together in micro-jobs in one team.’

Finally, let’s take a leap forward. Where, in your opinion, will we be in 2040? Will there still be controllers?

Mannens: ’75 percent of all repetitive jobs will be performed by machines, even when there is a certain amount of intelligence involved. I see a new race coming up, the intellectual robot as a human’s equal. I am sure there will be a robot sitting in the Board Room too. And the humans will listen carefully to what this robot has to say. Our kids will take this for granted, as we do with electricity and the internet now.’

Van Maele: ‘Maybe data will come from the socket, just a commodity. But taking decisions will remain a human task. The controller of the future will be the one to ask the right questions and to challenge the others to take action.’

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