James Henderson

Is it time to paint an AI future in the Philippines?

For a nation known as heavy online social users, converting insatiable consumer appetite for new technologies into sustainable enterprise execution represents the next step in the digital evolution of the Philippines.

In-between B2C and B2B environments is a middle ground of web-based businesses thriving in one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the value of the Philippine digital sector increased by 7.7% in 2023, reaching P2.05 trillion compared to P1.9 trillion in 2022.

With momentum continuing to track in an upward direction, the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) looks set to accelerate demand for digital innovation further.

“We’re beyond questioning the practicality of AI,” observed Eeman Bulotano III, Founder and Chief Digital Officer at Hooman Design.

Eeman Bulotano III (Hooman Design)

The democratisation of Generative AI (GenAI) – driven by the mass availability of ChatGPT and Microsoft Copilot – has integrated AI into the day-to-day environments of corporate executives and curious consumers, a shift that places the Philippines on the path to creating practical use cases to justify business deployment.

“During the past few years, there wasn’t many conversations about AI,” Bulotano said.

“That’s unsurprising because the pandemic made digital transformation normal for the first time. But the rapid emergence of practical applications has been a driving force in a lot of organisations starting to take the AI conversation seriously, as well as Industry 4.0.”

In heading up Hooman Design – a Manila-based digital agency founded in 2019 with specialisation across enterprise software, cloud and data – Bulotano is at the heart of conversations to innovate at scale. And for the first time, such market sentiment is now playing out in the numbers.

According to Moxie Research – which surveyed 209 IT decision-makers in the Philippines during May 2024 – organisations will increase investment in key technology solutions during the next 6-12 months, spanning:

  1. Data / Analytics
  2. Cyber Security
  3. AI / Machine Learning
  4. Applications (Migration, Modernisation)
  5. Cloud Management
  6. Digital Transformation
  7. Software (CRM / ERP)

This is in the context of 80% of Filipino businesses demanding increased levels of return on investment (ROI) on current and future projects, with a significant majority (77%) now questioning pricing models amid a commitment to tightening spend.

“Manual tasks are being disrupted on a regular basis as more of these types of AI tools enter the market,” Bulotano said.

“From simple tasks such as composing messages or creating content – or even drafting formulas – a lot of human-based tasks are now being offloaded to AI. This is allowing organisations to become even leaner.”

According to World Economic Forum findings – Jobs of Tomorrow: Large Language Models (LLM) and Jobs – more than two thirds (68%) of all technology roles will be severely exposed to the continued advancements in AI. Within this context, LLMs are expected to either entirely replace or enhance human productivity in the coming years.

Specifically, approximately 32% of all technical roles within the industry are considered as having “high potential for automation”, defined as a task that will be performed by LLMs and not humans going forward.

The majority of jobs (36%) will be augmented rather than automated however – humans will continue to perform the task but LLMs will increase human productivity.

“Many job fields are starting to fear the risk of how AI could nullify their need and impact, that’s happening across a range of industries in the Philippines,” Bulotano added.

“But I’d like to believe it’s the same as how it’s always been when new tools and technologies emerge. On the balance of probability, technology can’t replace humans but humans who use technology have a higher tendency to replace those who don’t.”

As outlined via Moxie Research – market intelligence that is local, relevant and current with proprietary data rigorously tested against comprehensive methodologies – Filipino organisations are evaluating the benefits of new technologies amid the backdrop of shifting strategic priorities.

The most pressing objective is to reduce business costs and improve efficiencies, which comfortably placed no.1 on a list of corporate agenda items during the next 6-12 months. This is ahead of a need to improve profitability levels (no.2), improve cash flow and reduce financial pressures (no.3).

While the core priorities remain reflective of turbulent fiscal conditions – although the Philippines ranked as the fastest growing economy across Southeast Asia in 2023, with a growth rate of 5.6% – appetite for transformation still remains.

Next on the list is a focus on building new products and services (no.4), supported by the enhancement of customer experience levels (no.5) which should in turn, help increase core revenue sales (no.6) as well as strengthening customer retention rates (no.7).

“The customers we meet today are trying to understand how they can further automate and protect operations through enhanced services and platforms,” Bulotano confirmed.

Within this context, industry attention is turning towards software solutions such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and learning management systems (LMS).

“Operations is a key priority to solve at a business management level,” Bulotano said. “Ensuring profitability is optimised and properly accounted for is of upmost importance to Filipino executives.

“In response, interest in ERP solutions has been steadily increasing during the past few years but given that most offerings are complex and unaffordable, challenges remain when maximising the potential.”

Even though digital transformation was expedited for Filipino organisations during the pandemic, Bulotano said many still remain grounded in the primary phase of execution. The rest have advanced to the second wave which involves examining initial investments and understanding if true ROI was achieved.

“Some businesses are still trying to kick-start this transformation with simple revamps to company websites and customer engagement activities,” Bulotano added.

In assessing the local market landscape, Bulotano acknowledged that web design and development projects continue to offer Hooman Design an “entry point” into digital discussions.

“Even though it’s a very congested and volatile market, this is still something we participate in as it allows us to kick-start other digital transformation initiatives for our customers,” Bulotano said.

“That’s always our intent with every interaction, tackle digital transformation. This isn’t about just building a website or launching a campaign or deploying a system. Our expertise is doing digital for humans, with humans, as humans.”

Since launching the business five years ago, Bulotano has remained clear and consistent with regards to how Hooman Design will show up in the market. This is a human-centric digital experience provider.

Eeman Bulotano III (Hooman Design)

Irrespective of technology or methodology, the intent is simple – “build human solutions that enable communication, collaboration, critical-thinking and creativity”.

Skills that are essential not only in the modern era but to also navigate the stormy and more immediate waters of Industry 4.0.

“That’s essentially how we design our portfolio,” Bulotano shared. “We ensure every service that we add to our portfolio attempts to answer the 4 Cs. This is based on the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning, which we believe is critical to Filipino businesses thriving in Industry 4.0.”

This blueprint was developed with input from teachers, education experts and business leaders to “define and illustrate” the skills and knowledge students need to succeed in work and life. So far, this approach has been used by thousands of educators and hundreds of schools in the US and overseas.

“We then utilise methods such as design and systems thinking to ensure that these services are ready for humans and the environment around them,” Bulotano continued. “Making sure our solutions are affordable, accessible, adaptive and attentive is key.”

From a best practice standpoint, Hooman Design is also guided by MIT’s Building Blocks of Digital Transformation.

“Since day one, we have built offerings that cover each of its pillars: Customer Experience, Operational Process and Business Model,” Bulotano said.

“That being said – on the Operation Process pillar – ever since we started the company, we knew that we had to have a solution or two that would directly address this. Hence our ERP and LMS services that also bring huge levels of availability and affordability to the equation.”

Placing humans at the heart of digital transformation

Headquartered in Quezon City, Hooman Design has delivered more than 250 projects worldwide, with over 200 service items completed and over 300 tickets resolved. Industry reach spans more than 25 sectors, notably including education, retail, manufacturing and services.

Communications offerings include digital marketing, social media and marketing automation while collaboration expertise extends to cloud management and support services, alongside ERP and LMS capabilities. This is in addition to consultancy services, analytics dashboard work and data consolidation offerings – plus augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences.

The business is nearing the end of a five-year plan which started at the birth of the company in 2019. No crystal ball could have predicted the impact of COVID-19 on any organisation – established or emerging – but despite operating in such tumultuous settings, Bulotano and his team have refused to deviate.

“We’ve connected to our mission of helping humans achieve their goals with human-centric digital experiences,” he said. “We’ve been on track to discover, design, develop and dedicate a human agency for digital transformation.

“That being said, our main focus is the sustainability and security of our business given the massive growth the first 2-3 years offered us. We’re now preparing for the next round.”

Practicing what they preach is a critical component of that preparation, Bulotano clarified.

“We utilise the very solutions that we sell to optimise everything we do,” he said. “That spans Customer Experience to Operational Process to Business Model pillars.

“But like many companies here in the Philippines, the general instability of the economy from time to time causes challenges in managing how we move forward. That’s when being lean and agile allows us to navigate with a little more flexibility, especially with new partners helping us accelerate further.

“For example, Vimeo Enterprise is our official partner in video hosting which has helped us to expand with high-level solutions despite the rapid market changes happening.”

Looking back on the early stages of Hooman Design, a range of metrics could be utilised to generate business achievements – revenue, profitability, growth, market share etc. For example on growth, that has been “unexpected and beyond target”.

Beyond the numbers however, an “unforgettable accomplishment” has been the company’s ability to consistently create a network of humans interacting and working together – spanning clients, employees, suppliers and sub-contractors.

“All of us working together to help each other achieve our objectives,” Bulotano said. “Being able to build that at an early stage is something that I’m always going to enjoy remembering.”

Drawing on more than a decade of industry experience, Bulotano acknowledged that transitioning from employee to entrepreneur stands tall as one of his “biggest challenges” to date.

“I’ve worked with many different companies over the past decade – B2B, B2C, local and global – and have been part of both the front-end and the back-end,” he noted. “The routine’s always the same – I’m used to solving my own problems and doing things myself when others can’t.”

In other words, Bulotano is usually the person deployed to solve problems, hence the notable shift in pace to the world of entrepreneurship. Likewise management, and the need to allow teammates to tackle issues and learn on the job.

“Watching and doing all the paperwork while other members of the team are in on the action bores the hell out of me,” he admitted. “But it’s part of this and I very much understand. On the other hand, I’m ready to help my teammates do the dirty work when we need to. I know I can be happy with that.”

For any entrepreneur seeking to build a technology specialist from the ground up in the Philippines – playing at the bleeding-edge of the market with digital transformation and AI as vehicles of change – Bulotano can offer one word of wisdom… learn.

“Learning will always be key,” he explained. “Be fluid enough to keep adapting and adjusting and use learning as a tool to understand how everything you do is connected to many different things.

“This will help you be more considerate of the impact that your decisions have on others and will hopefully make those decisions more sustainable in the future.”


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