Interview

AITech Interview with Ulf Persson, Chief Executive Officer at ABBYY

Learn about the most significant issues that the IT services sector is currently facing.

Ulf, can you tell us about your background and how you became the CEO of ABBYY? How did you start, what were the most pertinent challenges, and how did ABBYY triumph?

  • ABBYY has been special to me since the days when I worked at an investment firm earlier in my career. What attracted me to ABBYY was, and still is, making transformative changes to how customers can make their data work smarter and give them better business results. 
  • My official journey with ABBYY began when I became a member of the ABBYY Group Board in 2002 then Chairman of the Board in 2015. I became CEO of ABBYY in 2017, so I have a long appreciation of the company and its values that I’m proud to now be leading. 
  • Our biggest triumphs are when we make a difference to customers. We’re especially proud in how we helped many companies overcome significant challenges during and post pandemic. We helped them know where best to start automation initiatives and understand their business processes better, transition them to the cloud, accelerate their digitization efforts, and get them up and running quickly. Most notable included seeing our customers fund loans faster, review drug applications faster, and enable customers to conduct more self-service transactions from smartphones during a time when remote and social distancing forever changed how we work. From adapting to unstable markets to developing new solution strategies, the people at ABBYY have proved their resilience when it comes to embracing change and overcoming obstacles. I believe ABBYY’s customer-centric approach to teamwork and collaboration is a key component in our ability to work past adversity. 

Can you share your vision for ABBYY? What are your long-term goals and aspirations for the organization?

  • We envision a world where organizations can put their information work more seamlessly, enabling businesses to provide customers with experiences that make their lives better, more productive, and fulfilling. We support this vision by drawing from over 30 years of experience as a trusted and innovative organization with a successful track record, and we use that confidence to transform businesses’ outcomes. We know we’re on the right track because we’ve been recognized by more than a dozen influential analyst firms as a leader in intelligent document processing (IDP) and process mining. Additionally, we have more than 10,000 customers worldwide, including many in the Fortune 500, who trust us to power their intelligent automation. No matter what document, format, language, or context we’re working with, we have the expertise to meet and exceed client expectations – and that remains as ABBYY’s ultimate goal. 

In your view, what do you perceive as the most noteworthy challenges confronting the IT services industry at present? 

  • One of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – is the need to create impact and value for customers. KPIs like time to production, time to value and quality during production are more important than ever, meaning software vendors must become top quality service providers. The Software As A Service (SaaS) model also means customers can more easily switch providers if they are not seeing the expected value. An aspect to this is that we are moving from a vendor, buyer relationship to a partnership built on technology, service provision, and innovation. We strive to be a trusted partner to our customers in all questions around IDP and process understanding.
  • Another major challenge is the currmaent economic and labor environment that has caused many decision makers to pause on major IT initiatives. Discrepancies in tech stacks between departments coupled with overzealous budgets during 2020-2021 left many organizations with technical debt, further causing CIOs to pause innovation until they have a clearer strategy on their roadmap. It’s prudent for innovation leaders to understand what their organization does or does not need, the technologies to adopt, and what will advance their business goals. It’s very similar to where enterprises were in 2020. We’re here to help them navigate through the hype of technology, especially as it relates to AI, and cut through the noise to know how to optimize operational efficiency, enhance workforce productivity and improve customer experiences.  

According to you, which three areas of an organization hold the most untapped potential for AI adoption and innovation, and how can it lead to a competitive advantage?

  • There are three key areas to note: efficiency, experience, and revenue. 
  • Operational efficiency through workflow optimization has significant potential. Organizations are always chasing efficiency, but many attempts to optimize or automate prove unsuccessful due to a lack of clear objectives, direction or visibility. Process intelligence – a combination of process and task mining technologies enhanced with AI – gives enterprises the visibility they need to make drastic improvements to their operations company-wide. For example, a company we worked with in financial services was able to determine it was incurring a staggering $17 million a year in costs due to not executing transactions from customers on time. Using process mining, our customer was able to gain visibility for its entire workflow end to end – which involved consolidating two million events and transactions a day across 40 different systems. This led to the implementation of a more uniform process to improve efficiency.
  • Customer experience is another area where innovation and AI can improve retention, increase customer acquisition and generate more revenue. Onboarding, for example, is a frequent pain point for businesses that can be improved with intelligent automation. Arduous onboarding procedures that require repetitive information and excessive manual entry can result in abandonment and even damage brand reputation. Using intelligent document processing to streamline proof of identity documents will make onboarding a painless process for potential customers. A recent survey commissioned by ABBYY showed that 90% of organizations experience dropout during registration – which is a lot of potetial revenue untapped. However, respondents believe if the abandonment rate was reduced by just 50%, it would increase customer acquisition by 29% and increase revenue by 26%. Modifying the onboarding process with technology appears to dramatically improve overall customer experience by up to 43% and increase customer retention by over a third (37%), according to our survey. 
  • Using AI and innovation for accelerating revenue is a strategic opportunity for organizations especially as it relates to accounts payable. AP is often laden with inefficiencies, but AI-driven solutions can prevent this. Automating AP processes can increase employee productivity by 400%, reduce invoice processing costs by 91%, and expedite processing times by 81%. Finance and IT leaders should be aware of their options when it comes to digitally transforming accounts payable. 
  • If managers and leaders focus on improving these areas of their business, they’ll find that this standard of excellence will permeate throughout the rest of the organization. 

What unique value proposition does ABBYY offer in terms of AI and Innovation? How do you ensure your AI use is ethical and unbiased?

  • ABBYY combines innovation and experience. We’ve been leveraging artificial intelligence in our solutions for decades, so AI is not just a fad to us – it’s at the center of what we do. The hype of generative AI has led to an upcropping of software vendors looking to capitalize on the train of excitement, but ABBYY is differentiated by our ability to transform data into intelligent actionable outcomes and serve our customers’ needs, enabling them to spend time on what matters most. In healthcare for example, patients often need a referral to see a specialist that requires several medical records documenting the patient journey. We’re able to streamline the business process, digitize information, and have pertinent data automatically ingested into electronic healthcare records so patients can receive specialist care much faster. Rather than chasing medical records and approvals, physician staff can spend more time with patients. 
  • In regards to ethical use of AI, not only is our AI integration within our solutions intentional and purposeful, but it bears a commitment to privacy, confidentiality, equity, and social utility. We take compliance very seriously and ensure we’re in line with applicable laws and regulations. ABBYY also takes part in larger conversations concerning the future of AI, of its development, and of its use. 

Document processing has been around for decades, what makes it more relevant today? Would you consider it going through a new renaissance?

  • At the center of every business, there will always be documents – whether they originate digitally or paper. “Intelligent document processing” twenty years ago meant sending a fax. Now, innovation has made it possible where consumers can snap pictures of documents and send it directly into a business’ mobile app or portal and knowledge workers can expedite work. Think about the REAL ID process at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You used to need to bring copies of a proof of address, auto insurance information, proof of identity documents like a passport, birth certificate and marriage certificate to the office and stand in line for hours. Now this entire process can be done with a smartphone via the DMV portal. IDP is the magic behind the scenes that transforms the data. We’re now seeing tech giants entering the IDP market, but we have decades of a head start in leveraging AI for documents. 

What’s the latest technology that you think can change our industry / How do you see the impact of latest technologies like ChatGPT for our industry?

  • Generative AI is proving to create a massive shift in how we interact with technology. For all the different uses and functions it is being applied to, I truly believe that its most impactful use will be as a new interface between humans and technology. The advances that are now being made in the foundational models continue to accelerate, but there certainly are considerations to make as an enterprise. ABBYY has been leveraging the technologies found in these foundational models for many years, but always with compliance and ethics at the forefront of our development process.
  • This rethinking of interfaces extends beyond just generative AI and into enterprise solutions and platforms as a whole. Enterprise workers want the mobile app experience – click, download, launch, and ready-to-use capabilities – for complex developer and business applications. Low/no-code solutions have changed that. We’ve led this effort with the industry’s first IDP solution that empowers “citizen developers” and business analysts to download AI skills to read and understand documents like a human. The democratization of AI with intuitive, easy to use interfaces are allowing organizations to work more efficiently. ABBYY has also experimented with implementing generative AI into low-code solutions to take the accessibility of IDP even further.

As the CEO, how do you inspire and motivate your team to achieve the organization’s goals? What are some significant goals you’ve achieved in the past year?

  • The ABBYY culture very much centers on how we can transform our customers’ business and in turn, improve their customers’ lives. Sharing results and best practices among team members transcends to continuously sharing with existing, new, and future customers. Many of our customers are happy to participate with us in educating other innovation leaders on how using intelligent automation has impacted their organization. 
  • ABBYY’s unique geographic and cultural distribution adds many different opportunities for motivating teams across the organization. Our headquarters are in Milpitas, California and we have offices in 14 other countries. We firmly believe that to enable our team to flourish, we must provide them with the flexibility to work in ways that suit them best. For this reason, we offer various flexible working arrangements, including remote and hybrid options, as well as flexible hours.
  • Furthermore, we prioritize wellness and acknowledge what that means to different individuals, offering additional time off for volunteering and general well-being as a testament to this commitment. We like to spotlight how our team uses this time off and how they pursue their interests, both internally and on our Instagram page that focuses on life at ABBYY. The heart of our value is ultimately our culture of appreciation and recognition, and our commitment to embracing an uplifting environment where colleagues actively express support and gratitude for each other. 
  • As for goals achieved, we’ve accomplished a great deal in the past year. ABBYY has undergone significant transitions; from an ISV focus to applications, to capture, and now to Intelligent Automation. Transforming from one market to another means we have had to rethink the product portfolio, how we create and scale solutions, the buyer persona – in some ways, we’ve had to rebuild our products altogether. This is no easy task, but we’ve come a long way. We’ve seen great acceptance and results from our low-code/no-code IDP platform Vantage and we know now that the product is reaching maturity. Our process intelligence solution Timeline has gained strong traction in a market that had previously been cornered by a large incumbent. This was all made possible through ABBYY’s strong emphasis on innovation and collaboration. We are building upon our 30 years of leadership in the market and our technology and AI advantage to continue our growth. But perhaps the biggest transition is to put the customer at the center of everything we do. This is an easy thing to say but a much more difficult thing to actually put in practice. We still have room for improvement – and will always look to improve further – but I am proud of the way all teams and business units at ABBYY are customer-centric in their work.

What are the 2-3 biggest lessons you’ve learned about leading a company over the past 2 years? What is the biggest piece of advice you would want to give to company leaders?

  • For one, I’ve learned to act as quickly as possible. Acting quickly can often make life a little easier, in a variety of cases. If opportunities start to string you along or growth plans begin to seem out of reach, make proactive adjustments that will mitigate the impact before you’re entrenched in the consequences. Operate on the assumption that not everything will go according to plan – especially in an already shaky market that’s feeling the effects of global events.
  • It’s also important to not be too hard on yourself. It’s tempting to reflect and dwell on what you could have done differently, but all things considered, you should be optimistic about where you are now. 

What’s next for ABBYY? Where do you see ABBYY three to five years from now? Are there any integration or expansion plans in the pipeline? 

  • We’re planning on strong year-over-year growth over the next five years. Our initiatives focus on partnering closely with customers to ensure they achieve their business goals while also continuously reimagining how our solutions can perform better and be consumed faster and easier. 
  • I also anticipate there will be significant consolidation in the market over the next three years. How this applies to ABBYY is yet to be determined, but we will grow organically through the tremendous growth opportunities ahead of us. Currently, ABBYY is successful in our independence and content to be driving our own strategy. 

Ulf Persson

Chief Executive Officer at ABBYY

Ulf Persson has been CEO of ABBYY since 2017. He first joined the company as a member of the ABBYY Group Board in 2002 and in March 2015, he became the Chairman of the Board. For over 25 years, Ulf has been involved as an investor and board member in 20 different growth companies, including jNetx (telecom software),  UCMS (HR & accounting BPO) and MyMoney (P2P car financing). Ulf is a graduate of Stockholm School of Economics and the Swedish Defense Language Institute and holds a B.Sc. in Economics.

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