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What if a service provider could build itself from scratch based on the learnings from the past two decades? Liberty Source, launched in 2013 as an impact sourcing provider, is trying to do just that in the highly competitive finance & accounting (F&A) outsourcing market. It has agreed to share its story with us over the coming months as its business continues to scale. We plan to look at how it optimizes its talent model to align to its social mission, its approach to using automation technology in service delivery, and other key issues which it faces as they look to compete in the market.
Our first discussion was with Steve Hosley, CEO of Liberty Source and a veteran of the outsourcing and shared services industries. We hope you enjoy this unique view into what it is like to start a new service provider company that is attempting to disrupt traditional models.
Eric: What is Liberty Source and how is it unique?
Steve: Liberty Source is an onshore BPO provider of F&A services. Our differentiators revolve around transparency and flexibility with our customers. Business is changing fast and flexible agreements are important to keep up with the pace. By flexible, we mean being able to pivot quickly to a company’s evolving delivery needs with a mix of automation and human capital needs.
We have chosen to run our onshore center with a social compass. Our team members – or as we call each other “shipmates” – primarily have a direct military affiliation as spouses of active duty military members or they are veterans themselves. This represents over 70% of our employee base. Our culture continues to be built around the U.S. military community. We believe that this community makes us look and operate much differently than a typical BPO operation. For example, we have “family meetings” instead of the more stereotypical “all-hands meetings.” Our conference rooms are named after famous U.S. military spouses with our Boardroom named after Martha Washington. Our transformation training revolves around the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) rather than the typical Six Sigma.
Lastly, we aim to create a business that is known as a transformation center – where customers come to transform their work and employees come to transform their careers.
Eric: Where is Liberty Source finding this military talent?
Steve: Our current operations center is in Fort Monroe Virginia, near Virginia Beach. It is located near five bases, home to over 70,000 active service members and the largest naval base in the world. 85% of our employees have college degrees and of them, 21% of them are holding Masters Degrees. This helps confirm that we have a talented workforce that is simply seeking big company, multi-national experience. The fort has a storied history and is known as Freedom’s Fortress. Under Union General Benjamin Butler during the U.S. Civil War, it became a beacon for tens of thousands of slaves to come and gain their freedom. We believe, that that in small way, we hope to continue in the spirit of Fort Monroe by providing real commercial technical skills and careers to a population of well-deserving and very talented U.S. military spouses and veterans.
Our spouses are allowed to take their positions with them when they are PCS’d (permanent change of station) so now with over 10 percent of our employees operating virtually, we aim to continue to expand our footprint of Liberty Source coverage to all the major U.S. military bases around the world.
Eric: How is Liberty Source structured, legally and financially?
Steve: Liberty Source was created to capture the growing commercial demand for onshore BPO delivery but do it in a manner that was socially responsible. We established ourselves as a Public Benefits Corporation, or a PBC. This allows us to operate as a commercially viable and market relevant for-profit enterprise, while also holding the company accountable to a social mission. Given that this structure and delivery model was new, we elected to initially go to market as a wholly owned subsidiary of Digital Divide Data, which pioneered the offshore impact sourcing market in the early 2000s.
Eric: What successes has Liberty Source had to date?
Steve: We are a little over a year old in terms of go-to-market efforts and have stabilized our first client, a very large contract with 15 different processes. These were brought back from India from an eight-year incumbent. We transitioned in 100 FTEs and have been live with the client’s work since February. Our first client attained the same price as it did in India, and now the work is only three hours away from them versus being in India.
We achieved price neutrality by doing the work more efficiently. The efficiencies have been gained through three primary drivers. As we stated previously the community we are building is loyal, resulting in single-digit attrition this year. What we have found is that this lack of attrition makes us more competitive in that we are not having to spend time and effort on retraining and extensive review cycles. We inherited an ingrained functional tower orientation and migrated it to end-to-end process teams, which really helped reduce rework. Lastly, we are benefiting from building a business in the era of “As a Service” and cloud offerings so our infrastructure is light and efficient. A combination of things like email from Office365, general ledger from NetSuite, payroll from ADP, and all workstations are laptops to provide DRP (disaster recovery plan) flexibility. Most importantly we strongly believe that we are in the people business and that our success in delivering quality service back in the U.S. on this tough economic contract, is due to the fortitude and dedication of our employees. This is most evident in that we successfully trained 100 people in 120 days with a limited background in SAP and SFDC applications to work effectively in those environments.
Eric: How has the organization and its business matured in the short time Liberty Source has been in existence?
Steve: With the monthly delivery to our foundational client, now stable and our second client underway, the Board of Directors of Liberty Source made the decision last month to exit the foundation stage and enter our next stage of growth given that we have proven the viability of the model and have positive momentum. This growth stage includes investing in pursuing other clients. Our second client, also a large Fortune 500 multi-national, is undergoing a transformation and wanted a BPO provider that was willing to be flexible as its strategy evolved. This translates into taking on work that is initially about providing performance-based labor, which they need now, while also working on a project to automate the work, and then eventually rebalance the delivery mix into the appropriate levels required to be done by humans after the automation is completed.
The market and customers have spoken to us, so we have pulled forward the training, building and management of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in our business model and invested in it earlier than we had planned.
Eric: How does Liberty Source plan to compete in the market moving forward?
Steve: We are targeting the market through a couple lenses. We are starting in the F&A area. We typically aim for companies that share our social mission of employing military spouses and vets. Finally, we resonate with organizations that have already outsourced before and are able to understand the benefits of our model when we explain things like transparent governance, providing a pathway to outcome-based pricing and how we embrace technology.
Because we have proven the model in Virginia, we would like to continue to scale and grow this location. We are also open to creating another center near an existing military population that may align with some other company’s geographic delivery or customer base and shares our social mission of providing opportunities to U.S. military families.
Lastly, part of our social mission is about providing upward mobility to our employees and we believe that embracing automation will over time elevate the remaining work and fulfill this commitment. In turn, our customers benefit from Liberty Source’s pursuit of these technology solutions though continuous improvement.
Eric: What are some of the things on your mind as you look forward to the next steps of Liberty Source?
Steve: We know the market need – it is seeking agility and flexible arrangements. Ones that can provide innovation and benefit to both parties. We feel our model and culture position us well to provide these differentiators.
Further, we must marry up this to the human capital strategy – we are beginning to build a virtual spouse model, which will give us even more elasticity on how to access and deliver talent. We also believe that bringing RPA into the service delivery model will provide flexibility in how we manage operations and our talent pool.
Eric: Thanks for your time and insights – I look forward to hearing more about how the journey has progressed when we speak again.
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Service Delivery Automation (SDA) encompasses cognitive computing as well as RPA (robotic process automation). Software providers that provide SDA come to market with an enterprise licensing structure that basically requires the customer to license a number of agents for a specific length of time. But in using this licensing model, service providers unintentionally constrain adoption and open the door for competitors’ differentiation.
The problem is that many of the uses for SDA are cases where companies need variable amounts of agents and computers. For example, the client may have a million transactions to process. So it could buy a license for one agent to run through those transactions in a week; but to reduce cycle time requires buying the license for 10,000 virtual agents for one hour. At Everest Group, we clearly see clients becoming frustrated with this lack of licensing flexibility.
This situation calls for a consumption-based approach to SDA in which the customer pays the software provider handsomely, but the provider doesn’t constrain or force unnatural motions on its customers and doesn’t create unnecessary cycle-time issues.
This blog is a call to service providers to come up with a consumption-based pricing model for SDA services. I’m not advocating that providers give away their software or take less money for it. I am saying that the current pricing structure inhibits adoption and is a constraint on the growth of the industry. Employing a consumption-based pricing model doesn’t mean that the client won’t pay a fair compensation or that the provider won’t be profitable. To achieve this, providers need to create some kind of metering vehicle in which time or activities are metered and they need to link their pricing to this meter.
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One prediction I have made about the future of service delivery automation (SDA) is that increasingly enterprise software will have the technology embedded. This is particularly true of intelligent and cognitive type of tools. I expect these to become a common feature of enterprise software in the next 5-7 years.
We saw this kind of trend in the earlier days of business intelligence and reporting. The popularity of third-party tools saw the functionality built into enterprise software. As well as reports on activities, dashboards started to feature in applications giving instant views of what was going on in the enterprise. We do not have to look far to find such software today, for example, Blue Prism, includes analytics that report on operations and performance of its robots.
A current example of a more intelligent enterprise software is Oracle Policy Automation Cloud Service. This reads policies written in natural language. Then based on business rules and the policy, it decides what questions to ask the customer, performs eligibility checks, and produces a decision report.
Another example is HighSpot, an enterprise search tool that uses natural language processing for searches and machine learning for finding the most relevant information and ranking the results.
The availability of open source machine learning software libraries, such as Apache Mahout, and software tools from industry giants, such as Microsoft (Machine Learning Service on Azure), will accelerate the next generation of smarter enterprise software.
Some would say that intelligent enterprise software would be function-specific, but I believe some varieties will be able to do more than one thing within large software applications. The need for standardization of interfaces to these tools and the ability to interact with other intelligent applications will grow over time too. We could even see more automations crossing paths across workflows leading to more complex machine-based decision making.
The question is what impact will pervasive intelligence have on the outsourcing industry:
Intelligent enterprise software is here. And we are on the brink of it becoming pervasive and commonplace. As it does, I’ll continue to share my insights on its evolution.
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Automation has the essentials for introducing different kinds of business risks and risk at a different order of magnitude. The new risks manifest differently and have greater consequences than in a normal business process. The issue is the difference between type 1 and type 2 errors.
We at Everest Group have discussed with clients this impending shift of business processes to a far more automated landscape where type 2 errors are inadvertently introduced.
In a previous blog, I talked about automation bias and how people tend to blindly come to accept or believe whatever comes out of an automated tool. This makes the likelihood stronger that type 2 errors would occur.
On an industrialized services basis with broad-scale business processes, we must be aware of type 2 errors and guard against them. This is why many of the leading firms that are looking at adopting automation, cognitive computing, and robotics are considering implementing a Center of Excellence (CoE) to help the business understand the changes that accompany automation. A CoE can help educate employees to guard against automation bias and type 2 errors that could inadvertently be institutionalized in automated approaches to business processes.
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We’re at an inflection point in the ITO and BPO services world where we’re about to see a new level of technology: automation. On the whole, automation is a good thing. But there are some significant aspects we should be aware of. One is automation bias. And it’s dangerous.
When we move to automation, whether it’s cognitive computing or replacement of repetitive tasks, the people who are in the process become dependent on the automation. In fact, not only do they become dependent, they start to believe that whatever comes from the computer is truth. They take it for granted that the results are accurate. This is automation bias.
As a simple example, when you use a calculator, you quickly start to trust whatever the calculator results are. We have blind trust in automated tools.
A computer will slavishly do what it’s told to do or will run down the same cognitive analysis it has done in the past. When the world changes, the computer may not recognize that the world has changed. Change can come from one of the data sources having made a change. Or it could be an upstream or downstream change in a business process. Although people in the business process should recognize the change, automation bias may cause them not to recognize it because they believe that everything coming out of the computer is correct. This is a significant business risk.
The fact is automated tools are fallible. We all know that the world constantly changes, and automation bias presents the risk that the computer won’t recognize the change.
We’re on the verge of taking robotics and automation at a scale we have never done before. This will dramatically change how we perform business processes and how we run data centers. Organizations going down the automation path need to be aware of automation bias and build safeguards against it.
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