Monday Morning Moan - BT fuels the AI job stealing paranoia, but the empty calories of its word salad won't help customer service levels

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 22, 2023
BT's plans to slash headcount using AI is word salad of the highest extreme, full of empty calories.


The robots are coming and they’re going to steal our jobs! I’m going to be replaced by a bot!! AI is going to take over and make us all unemployed!!!

Unless you’re Elon Musk or a headline writer on a clickbait tabloid, I’d hope that as a reader of diginomica that you’ll be taking a more balanced view of what is clearly a disruptive tech revolution that will change all our lives to some degree or another - and not necessarily negatively if we handle the change management sensibly. 

But that does require keeping a level head and not subscribing to the feeding frenzy of negativity that surrounds us in our daily lives, as politicos and pundits chip in with their armageddon pedling about how awful everything is going to be. If the Terminator doesn’t plug us into the Matrix, then we’re all going to be upgraded to Cybermen anyway! 

BT blather

Thanks, then, to BT for throwing petroleum on the fire last week by cheerily announcing that 10,000 jobs are to go, to be replaced by AI - whatever AI means in this particular case. CEO Philip Jansen dropped the bombshell into the telco’s quarterly financial announcement, ‘arguing’ that: 

It's obviously been a challenging environment for us, like everybody. So you've had inflation, cost of living crisis, energy crisis, all things you know about. And I think we've navigated that really well and so what we've got, we are delivering our strategy, delivering our plan and we're on track. Now that we have, sort of, got a plan for the next five to seven years, and we've got a lot more things under our belt specifically, but also a lot of digitization and investment in IT, we've got a clear picture of where we're going

And where might that be? What does “a future BT”, as Jansen named it, look like? Apparently: 

We absolutely know we can deliver fantastic future state BT and I think we've laid it out and that is a great place to be, because once we are into the new world of new technology and you've got these fantastic next-generation networks on a digitized, virtualized, cloud-native type activity, all the new products and services that haven't been invented yet are going to fit perfectly onto our network in a seamless fashion.

Yaaaaay - all fully 'Buzzword Bingo'-compliant and utterly pumped up by calorie-free commitments!  All of which will, apparently, by 2030 - seven years hence - deliver: 

A brilliant BT with a bright future. 


Hurrah! Now, at this point, I should note that when it comes to BT being on top of innovation and determining the shape of things to come, we’re not exactly talking about a great track record. Some 15 years ago, when I moved house, I had to go through the utterly tedious and outmoded practice of having to wait weeks to get the broadband, that was already linked to the property, turned over into my name. 

I queried why gas, water, electricity and other utilities could simply be passed over into my name with a phone call, whereas BT made me jump though a stupidly complicated process to take over an existing service? The reply has stuck with me over the years as a BT exec told me firmly: 

Broadband is not a utility, sir - and it NEVER will be. 

BT futurologists totally on top of their game there, then?

But think about the wider implications. Imagine a state-owned telco that has essentially been handed a country’s network infrastructure, essentially now a privatized monopoly, and that’s its worldview? Imagine then why it might be that large parts of the UK, including inner city conurbations in major population centers, still struggle decades later to get anything remotely approaching a reasonable internet connection? 

Imagine then how much credibility a cynic might want to bestow on BT’s theories around the role of AI in its 2030 workforce! I’m sure everyone’s convinced that this is strategic thinking based on what’s best for everyone, not just for cutting costs, yes? 

Why AI? 

Over to Jansen for his rationalization: 

On our headcount, we've announced today some significant reductions and I think it might be worth me just providing some perspective on that, and then we can talk about AI in that context. Of the 130,000 down to 9,000 - 40,000 roles that we don't think we're going to need, right. These are rough numbers, remember, and we've got 30,000 contractors in there too, but I want to give you this sort of the way we're thinking about, and we've done a lot of work and obviously and it's not just happened. 

We're now announcing it, and we've been working on this with our partners for ages. Fifteen thousand roles roughly is [sic] about building networks, right? When it's finished, it's built - you only build it once, right, a fiber, done. There's another 10,000, which is about service and repair. And basically a fiber network, 5G network, the new networks, just need less servicing and repair.  They go wrong less often and you can fix things much more easily without truck rolls, without people...There's a bit of AI inherently in that by definition.

Then there's another circa bucket of 10,000, which is all about digitization, automation, and a bit of AI in there, and that is using technology to do things much more efficiently. The final block of five is sort of, what I'd call, conventional restructuring, most of which we've already announced, which is involved in the BT business creation which is Enterprise and Global coming together where we're taking out layers and duplication.

Just to add some dressing to that word salad to help you swallow it, he went on: 

The AI part is really interesting because we will be a beneficiary of AI unequivocally because we are a volume business, right? We’ve got sort of 30 million customers, we got lots of people, got lots of activity, and AI can help us do that more efficiently. If I give you some examples, I mean, for interest, we filed more AI patents than anybody else in the UK, any other UK-based company more patents on AI than anybody else.

So, we're not doing it everywhere, and we're being very thoughtful, but if I were to tell you that our chatbot called Amy, there's a lots of customer careers already. NPS 65+. Does everyone know that it's a chatbot? Of course they don't, but it delivers great outcomes. 

But there is a less upbeat side, he admitted: 

When we look at the network side, I know the dark knock, it exists - no people. And so in the network, planning, for example, can be done automatically with AI in a way that couldn't happen two or three years ago. It’s people-intensive - managing traffic, predicting traffic more accurately, it's people-intensive,. You won't need [them] anymore. So in router traffic, knowing when router starts flicking and we got 5,000 exchanges, plus loads of network operating centers, we're going down 1,100 exchanges. All equipment’s simpler, newer and more flexible, more nimble and we've got AI and all the data that can help create self-healing networks. So, we're going to be a massive beneficiary on efficiency and cost, which is why we know we won't need all these roles in the future. 

Obligatory generative AI comment

And of course - OF COURSE! - there’s a generative AI angle to this as he went on: 

AI will help us enormously be more efficient and deliver things for our customers in a more seamless way. There is another opportunity, which we've not even talked about yet, which are the new services and products that might come from Artificial Intelligence, specifically generative AI and Large Language Models AI, which we all know has enormous potential. We've got a few ideas, but it's very early days and that needs to be treated with great care and that's what we're doing.

None of this should be a surprise in terms of its impact on jobs, he insisted: 

This is not a new plan that we suddenly concocted in the last 36 hours and announced it, right? This is the plan that we have working on for a long-time. We haven't announced before because we wanted to get some runs on the board in terms of delivery of performance, both in terms of build and provisioning, but also efficiencies and I think we've done enough of that…Of course, it's not a welcome thing and not naive, if you do it well. If some of the things I talked about earlier happen, which I believe they will on AI, it's years out. There will be new jobs as a result of new technologies. 

OK, cool - so those will be what? Er….:

We're not going to get into what those are. We don't know yet, no one does, but anytime there's been a big jump in technology, new jobs appear, new things -- and they will appear and we'll be able to participate in that.

Well, I’m convinced that this is going to be for the benefit of us all, not just the bottom line. Aren’t you? 


BTW - as for the positive impact on customers and customer service argument, I just don’t know where to begin. In my personal experience, BT’s customer service is - and always has been - utterly appalling.

One of the best days of my life was the one when I finally realized that I had finally shed every trace of all things BT in my life - no internet, no phone service, no landline etc etc. Most of all, no more tortuous service calls with offshored call centers, or the passive aggressive - mostly the latter - responses from BT personnel to any complaint about the dreadful service levels.

I once made the point to Tom Siebel a long time ago that all the CRM software in the world wouldn't help a company if its underlying philosophy was to regard the customer as a ruddy nuisance. All you're doing in that case is making your indifference more efficient! Flash forward to today and the same is true, with bells on, for AI. 

Take my advice - any chance you get to select an alternative provider to BT, grab it with both hands and run for the metaphorical hills...before their new army of robots comes chasing after you! 

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