As algorithms, virtual assistants, and bots infiltrate conversational interfaces across business applications, in the crosshairs is company spend tracking and control. This is the panacea we’ve all been waiting for to an age-old problem.
Messaging services like Slack are ground zero for a new generation of integrated bots in the workplace. Most have stopped trying to trick users into thinking they’re chatting with humans while new features like message menus (dropdowns) integrated into the AI-generated text help users make nuanced decisions.
Driving the conversational UI behind the scenes is an-ever evolving mix of machine learning algorithms for pattern recognition, natural language processing, and other associated technologies. Together, they deliver a contextual experience that helps business users make smarter and faster decisions.
One business workflow rife with inefficiencies and errors is corporate buying and expense tracking. Pointing chatbots, or the next iteration of them that we’ll call AI assistants, in that direction will benefit everyone in the requisition and approval flow, from end users to the head of finance or the treasury boss.
The appeal of AI could be even greater for smaller businesses since most lack formal spend management policies, but still need to see who charged what and when on the company credit card. AI assistants enabled by emerging algorithms can arm every purchase decision with intelligence, in effect, augmenting human judgement every step of the way.
AI assistants can add intelligence to everyday tasks
In the realm known as transactional procurement and travel and expense (T&E), solutions with AI assistants could help with general questions, such as clarifying budget status or a spend limit. A user would be able to simply ask the robot a question within the same messaging interface where they chat with colleagues and then get an instant response.
For payments, an AI assistant could learn how you buy and then make recommendations based on context, supplier or product data, budget levels, working capital, and other factors one might overlook or simply not be privy to when initiating an everyday purchase for work.
In another scenario, a user could request an approval for a purchase, but before doing so, summon an AI assistant to verify if a similar request was made by a coworker to avoid a duplicate purchase. That way the user wouldn’t have to waste time and go digging for that info herself.
Finally, AI assistants can facilitate the buying process by generating a payment method such as a virtual credit card after the transaction gets approval from a manager on behalf of the requestor. Upon approval, a user would receive an encrypted virtual card with a spend limit to use as payment against a corporate account, massively simplifying what is typically an arduous back-and-forth process.
The AI opportunity goes well beyond transactions
In time, AI will evolve to allow organizations to make strategic buying decisions and respond to changing business conditions and market variability instantly. To get there, it will first remove the bottlenecks of repetitious decisions that occupy our time, like those mentioned earlier in this article. Then, they could be programmed to help make ever more strategic decisions.
In the sphere of sourcing and procurement, that could mean super-intelligent agents sourcing the highest quality rubber from a stable region, determining which short-listed supplier is most likely to honor their contract, forecasting supply chain disruptions and make recommendations weeks in advance, and so on.
Think that level of knowledge work is impossible for algorithms? Think again. Researchers at Google Brain have already developed software that designs machine-learning software with better results compared to machine-learning software designed by the boffins themselves!
We are well on our way to developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that will be able to handle increasingly complex tasks. In his best-selling book Homo Deus, author Yuval Noah Harari, drives the point home: “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.”
With that thought, we can return to our original premise and have little doubt that the rise of AI will mean all of a business’s spending will get smarter. AI expert Stuart Russell puts AI next to the discovery of fire in terms of impact on civilization. If AI will change the world, then it certainly will change business commerce.
Christopher Jablonski is Director of Content & Communications at Tradeshift, a cloud-based business commerce platform connecting buyers and suppliers.