The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined business risk, and many companies are finding existing continuity solutions to be inadequate in the face of such a multifaceted problem.

It can be hard to get an answer to simple questions. When can employees return to the office? How can they be kept safe with their health looked after while they’re working? If an infection occurs, which parts of the site can be kept open and which will need to be shut down? And, of course, how can a business hedge against disruptions like this in the future?

Companies at the vanguard of dealing with such challenging circumstances turn to the latest technology to move forward.

Artificial intelligence is demonstrably a powerful tool for analyzing such complexity at scale. It can spot correlations, uncover insights and make predictions and recommendations that support business resilience. 

By combining these analytical powers with key business relaunch functions spanning workforce safety, operational resilience and customer engagement, firms can gain a clearer picture of the threats that dot the post-COVID-19 landscape. And they will be able to navigate that landscape with greater confidence.

Artificial intelligence can be a powerful tool in understanding complex business scenarios. Source: Shutterstock.

City pioneers

One such AI solution has its origins not in business but in smart cities.

“In working with cities, we found that they were much better prepared than businesses to respond to such dynamic changes and could quickly translate these to the ‘last mile’, to citizens,” explains Suman Mahalanabis, Director Product Management, Digital Software & Solutions at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). 

“While enterprises are much more mature than many cities when it comes to digital transformation, they don’t have the same ability to bridge the last mile, to employees, suppliers and customers.”

This gave rise to the idea of adapting TCS’ Intelligent Urban Exchange (IUX) solution, originally developed to improve local government services in cities, to provide an AI suite for businesses. The aim was to help public-facing businesses such as banks, retailers but also corporate offices and campuses emerging from the lockdown to improve their workplace resilience. 

This cloud-based solution helps organizations to protect employees and customers and ensure compliance with evolving government regulations. All key indicators are displayed on a business command dashboard.

It’s a big data and Internet of Things analytics platform that can assimilate and apply real-time analytics to any form of data – from health and employee records to video, HR, supply chain and operations.

AI plays a significant role in building smart cities. Source: Shutterstock.

Safekeeping and communicating

Critical for businesses is the ability to monitor infection risk at their sites, take immediate action, and record compliance.

The first challenge as the world exits lockdowns is establishing which employees can be brought back safely, and keep them safe.

This means bringing together data from a range of sources to monitor staff in the workplace. Data from thermal monitors, cameras, mobile phones, badge scanners or,  for those with shops, iBeacons and similar devices are used to trace staff movements, and their proximity. 

Not only will those movements be visible on a dashboard, but there is also a ‘last mile’ connection back to the employee, who can be alerted if they are too close to another person. 

Should an infection occur, contact tracing applications can use this proximity data to map out who has been in contact with the person so that they can be asked to stay at home and isolate. 

Combined with images and video, these insights can help firms maintain optimal in-house and remote staff levels or suggest ways to ensure social distancing. Businesses can also keep track of sanitization processes and ensure they go to plan. 

Furthermore, they can monitor employee and customer sentiment and conduct risk profiling to gauge impacts on income and supply chains. 

At the same time, these measures can be communicated to both employees, regulators and ultimately, to customers. As such it becomes an important factor in both the employee and customer experience, as Suman Mahalanabis explains: 

“Safety has become the new CX. Just take the ubiquitous advertisements from pizza delivery services reassuring prospective customers that it’s safe to have pizza delivered to your home.” 

Of course, in tracking all this information, data privacy and protection is key. Data must only be gathered in the workplace and anonymized as much as possible – it must not affect private lives.

Safety has become paramount to business operations. Source: Shutterstock.

Gauging risk exposure

Ideally, companies should not stop at using internal data, but actively incorporate public data sources (for example, from local government) and draw on social media data to gauge brand risk. The latter two are both still underdeveloped, but can easily be brought together by a platform such as IUX to enable better simulations and risk profiling.

This would enable businesses to take stronger preventative measures: if geodemographic data from the local authority shows that the infection rate is rising in a particular area, firms could ask employees from this area to work from home to reduce their risk to exposure and, with that, the threat to their colleagues on-site. 

Rather than getting entire departments to work remotely, or shutting down a production area because a couple of people have a higher risk exposure, managers can simply isolate the relevant employees and plan around their absence. 

But an AI solution like IUX is much more than a way to manage infection risk and compliance: retailers can also, for example, forecast cash flow based on predictions of payments and receivables against current and predicted scenarios throughout the pandemic. 

In retail, for example, running algorithms on real-time stock data could help prevent overstocking or understocking of certain products – think toilet paper rolls and bread flour.  

In financial services, a bank manager could profile risk at specific branches by running what-if analyses based on infection rates, workforce impact and client relationships.

Similarly, the accumulated data could be used to rebalance loan risks. While banks and other lenders have the resources to lend, the pandemic has overthrown traditional loan risk assessments. Lenders are, as a result, very cautious. AI could help them improve their risk assessment and provide a basis for a more realistic lending appraisal. 

A 360-degree view

As the economy continues to recover from COVID-19, bringing together a multitude of disparate data sources – corporate, public, social – to synthesize raw data into meaningful and actionable information will be what sets companies apart from their competitors.

“In an increasingly complex business environment, the automation of intelligence and streamlining of processes across multiple vectors is a key way to build in resilience,” concluded Ashvini Saxena, Global Head, Digital Software & Solutions, TCS. 

“We cannot yet predict the future, but with solutions like IUX, we can do a pretty good job of containing the present threat environment for enterprises. Those forward-thinking operations that embrace solutions that offer granular insight to complex solutions will be the winners in the future economy.”