The Malta Independent 16 January 2019, Wednesday

A.I. is the next evolution for our company – iMovo CEO

Jeremy Micallef Wednesday, 19 December 2018, 16:11 Last update: about 28 days ago

With Artificial Intelligence become more accessible and powerful by the day, old methods need re-imagining with new ideas. Jeremy Micallef speaks with iMovo CEO Pierre Mallia about A.I., the customer service space, and potential employment issues. Pierre Mallia has been in the business for about 30 years, and he founded iMovo just over eight years ago, having previously worked for a US multinational and Microsoft for about seven years. He founded Microsoft’s first subsidiary here, and was the company’s first employee in Malta. While working with Microsoft, as one would expect from a technology firm, he began to see the real power of technology, and the bits that really interested him are those that have anything to do with customers.

What's your background originally?

My academic background is in computer science.

I spent four years studying in the UK, and one of the reasons I ended up there was because we had no I.T. degrees in Malta at the time.

After I finished my degree I came back and spent some time working in the public sector when it was just gearing up to start introducing I.T.

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I joined what was then the Managing Systems Unit, which today is MITA (Malta Information Technology Agency), and I was one of the first employees on the ground.

In that time I worked on projects related to social security, civil registration, police, quite a variety – after which I left and went into the private sector.

This was 1998 and I joined a Swedish dot-com company which was a hybrid company of I.T. on one side, where we were building an online travel portal before the days of Expedia, and on the the other hand we were front-ending this with a free-to-air satellite t.v. channel.

I then got head-hunted by Microsoft, which was very interesting, especially since they were looking to establish their first presence here.

It was a very interesting experience because it gave me a lot of exposure to meeting some people I would not have thought I would meet in my wildest dreams.

I met Bill Gates a couple of times, Steven Ballmer who was the CEO, and also some of the key executives who used to fly into Malta. It was a bit like handling a visiting head of state.

 

How did iMovo come to be?

iMovo started out very much as a company that wanted to help companies understand what is going on in their business; understand what's going on in their business; understand who their customers are and what their customers were doing with them.

Actually helping them retain those customers, capture new ones, and grow the business.

At the time we started to promote the use of two technologies.

One was what some people refer to as 'business intelligence', which is basically software which allows you to take data out of different systems and present it in a nice graphical dashboard format.

This today helps companies get an insight into what is happening in their business.

And the other side of the equation was that we started to promote the idea of introducing 'customer relationship management systems' or CRM systems.

My standard joke at the time was that when we started we knew exactly how many CRM systems there were in Malta being used by companies, and we could count them on one hand and not use all our fingers.

We were well ahead of the curve, so we've been through this sea change where today people actually know what it is, ask for it, and mainly come to us to help them introduce it into their businesses. 

There are a lot of companies that still don't have these kinds of tools to help them.

The idea behind CRM is to keep track of your customers, keep track of the business that you're doing, the discussions you're having with them.

There's also tracing a deal until it closes, then moving into the post-sale era of the customer and the customer service side.

We pretty much started operating in that area as a very specialist company, probably a lot of people, especially from the I.T. sector thought we were nuts. We were a small team, two or three to begin with.

"You'll never survive in such a small market, specialising in this area", they said.

Here we are today with 22 people, and, luckily, we won some good projects and formed very strong relationships with our own customers.

We apply what we sell, so you see us using analytics very heavily, as well as CRM.

 

How did Artificial Intelligence come into the picture?

Three years ago we stared hearing whispers of A.I. in this space.

That's where we started to say that we should look into this as the next evolution for the company.

We started talking to some of technology vendors and seeing what they were doing, and then earlier this year we took the decision to partner up with one particular company, which was also interested in us because of our profile in the customer service management space.

Digital Genius only have two partners and we are one of those two.

It has an A.I. totally specialised on customer service.

To use a practical example, say you are travelling and you have an interconnecting flight.

Let’s say you're travelling from Malta to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Copenhagen, and the first leg of your journey is running late.

You land in Frankfurt and you know you need to switch terminals, your flight is going to leave imminently - you're either looking for a customer service desk, or you would bring up the website or an application for the airport and there'd be a chat open.

While asking questions like which gate the airplane would be leaving from and when the next flight out would be are commonplace, it becomes interesting when you ask it to book you on the flight.

 

How does the relationship between iMovo and Digital Genius work?

We have a multifaceted partnership.

The idea is that they want their product company and focus on building their platform and enhancing it, and as the demand grows for it they need someone to help them deliver it.

They also needed a company that had certain profiles that were focused on, understood the customer service business, and understood some of the key platforms on which we are typically involved.

Our relationship with them is to eventually act as a professional services arm for them.

We also want to develop some intellectual property to help connect their platform to some of the more prevalent CRM systems that are out there.

 

One of the fears of A.I. is that it could cause mass unemployment. Where do you stand on this?

There are quite a few schools of thought around this.

Like all things mankind has created which have been game-changers, there are the positives and the negatives.

I think it will create a situation where it will unfortunately destroy jobs, as technological advancement has done in the past.

This time might be different in that there may not be as many new jobs created.

Martin Ford wrote Rise of the Robots in 2015, but a lot of what he wrote is still very relevant today.

His forecast is that there will be more jobs destroyed than created, and governments and organisation need to think about new social systems such as Universal Basic Income or job-sharing.

One also need to take a good look at the ethics of how A.I. is implemented.

As a practitioner in this industry I harbor those concerns, although in customer service it is not at a point where it is going to make people redundant.

If anything, at this stage, it could enrich jobs by taking away the more mundane stuff, and allowing them to concentrate on the more complex tasks.

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