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From Mystery to Mastery: How to Get the Most from Artificial Intelligence

In this special guest feature, Lloyd Humphreys, Principal Product Manager for Data & Analytics, Tradeshift, suggests that you change your mindset, forget about relinquishing complete control, and you’ll soon discover that AI can give you a competitive advantage in areas of your business you barely gave a moment’s thought to before, like the sometimes unglamorous world of invoice processing. Lloyd is a designer, turned product owner, and these days he prefers to work with data because he believes it’s possible to make a bigger impact with that skill set. He approaches his role at Tradeshift based on systems-thinking: identifying small changes that can have a large effect on people, processes, and technology.

We like to tell ourselves that we live in an Enlightenment where no one actually believes in magic. The problem with rationality, however, is that it’s easy to replace our faith in the supernatural with man-made magic. 

Artificial intelligence is a prime example of a technology that is considered so mystifying, so unknowable to all but the uninitiated, that it achieves a sort of cult-like status. The technology industry doesn’t always help, often referring to AI as a “black box” – something that only serves to add to its mystery and cloak its utility. As a result, instead of seeing AI as one tool in a varied toolbox, it becomes our master: a source of Delphic wisdom that cannot be contradicted.  

Organisations need to change their thinking around AI. Used properly, it’s an incredibly powerful tool that will deliver new levels of insight while teaching you things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. But that’s only possible when you stop treating it as your master, forget about relinquishing complete control, and show AI who’s boss.

What AI does best

Artificial intelligence worth the name doesn’t come cheap, which is why many organizations assume that it should be primarily deployed on the biggest, most strategic projects. And while AI can bring benefits anywhere it’s used, don’t make the mistake that there are some tasks that are somehow “beneath” its capabilities. 

Invoicing is one routine activity where AI can bring significant and strategic advantage. Processing invoices is a tedious task and hardly the best use of human potential. And perhaps this dullness explains why we’re not terribly good at it. One recent report estimated that 23% of all invoices contain a mistake requiring manual review and reprocessing, with the reasons ranging from a mismatch between invoice and purchase order (PO), to errors with invoice coding.  

Invoicing may be the way we collect revenue, but it’s also a major cost center. Accounts payable (AP) teams typically spend a quarter of their time chasing and correcting invoice exemptions. In fact, around 81% of all invoices require some degree of manual intervention, which helps to explain why it costs an average of $11 and takes eight days to process every invoice.

Many enterprises might see this as the unavoidable cost of doing business; others, however, might dream of automating the whole process and achieving straight-through processing of every invoice. Neither approach is right. Businesses need to find the perfect balance between human and machine, ensuring that each complements the other so automation doesn’t come at the expense of accuracy.

Keep control

Artificial intelligence is fiendishly clever, sure. But it’s raw genius; it needs to be nurtured and trained before it can be let loose on such sensitive, fault-intolerant tasks as invoice processing.

So start small, and hold its hand while you teach the technology how to recognize common errors. A perfect “robotic” task for AI is performing line matching between invoice and purchasing order, or entering the right coding. These are easy ones to teach because you’ll have plenty of “good” examples from which the AI can learn. For the first month or two, you’ll need a human operative sitting by and reviewing to ensure that the AI is getting things right. But after three months, you’ll have a very clear idea of where the technology can be trusted to do a better job than human operatives..

Of course, all this is predicated on having zero tolerance for errors. But many businesses may prefer to trust their AI a little more and to use its initiative (for want of a better word) within carefully-calibrated parameters. Unfortunately, almost every AI for accounts payable is a case of “on or off”, but that’s changing. The latest technologies enable operatives to set different tolerances, so you can decide whether the AI operates conservatively – always querying and flagging items it’s unsure of, if you simply want to provide people with a digital assistant  – or give it relatively free rein if you’re going guns blazing for automation. And the beauty is, you don’t have to choose between the two poles, but instead choose a happy medium that works for you.

Automated & invisible

As technology develops ever more human (or superhuman) capabilities, we shouldn’t be surprised that the way we talk about it evolves, too. To get the most out of AI, for example, it’s crucial that you trust the technology. This isn’t blind faith, but rather trust based on past performance and absolute confidence that it can complete clearly defined tasks.

Once you can trust AI to perform a task accurately, you can take it to the next level: from artificial intelligence to Automated and Invisible. To take an example from invoicing, when AI has been tested, refined and calibrated, it enables organizations to implement straight-through processing. This means that from the moment an invoice is received, the AI is mapping across documents and finding a match with the associated PO. It’s all invisible: the human operative having to do a thing.  

It’s when you have this level of trust that the real benefits start to flow. We’ve seen AI and automation reduce the cost of processing invoices from $11 to just $2 and slashing the average processing time to under three days. 

But the benefits don’t stop there. When you’re in control of AI,  you can do away with the approvals process entirely on certain recurring or low-value transactions from a trusted vendor. It’s possible to analyze vast quantities of data from breaches around the world to discover vulnerabilities within the organization that would normally not be found by the human eye. And it can have a direct impact on cash flow by helping to identify and reward the partners who pay early.

Artificial intelligence might have superpowers, but it demands that organizations show it who’s boss. Take it slow, keep control, develop trust in the technology – and you’ll be well on your way to enlightenment.

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