Cheney Guo, Digital and Innovation Director at Sodexo Greater China, shared the company's experience of maintaining competitive status in the digital development at the 2019 Business Leadership Forum hosted by Business Management Review.

Lina Qian, Dan Shi

Founded in 1966 in France, the Sodexo Group is one of the world's largest multinational companies engaging in catering services and integrated facilities management, and has been listed in the Fortune Global 500 for many years in a row.

Sodexo entered in China in 1995 with the concept of "improving the quality of life of organizations and individuals", helping to establish the standard of modern business service system in the Chinese market.

As an industry leader, Sodexo could have replicated the way it has done business for decades, but Cheney believes that maintaining the status quo will lead to a loss of competitiveness or even to elimination from the market. “Innovation is in Sodexo’s DNA, Sodexo China is fully committed to the digital transformation. In 2017, it established the digital department in China and made it a business priority to improve the quality of life of organizations and individuals in a more meaningful way.”

Cheney Guo, Digital and Innovation Director at Sodexo Greater China, shared the company's experience of maintaining competitive status in the digital development at the 2019 Business Leadership Forum hosted by Business Management Review.

Looking for Digital Opportunities with Chinese Characteristics

At the 2018 edition of VivaTech, a technology conference held in Paris, Sodexo invited a Chinese startup called AEYE-GO. The company, founded by professors and PhDs from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, developed the world’s first self-checkout system for food solutions based on artificial intelligence visual recognition technology. It is the first start-up in China that Sodexo Ventures, our VC arm invested in.

Sodexo works with startups to integrate emerging technologies with Sodexo's business platform, providing better services to consumers and addressing pain points in user experience. In many of the large companies it serves, it was always difficult to queue up for check-out in canteens efficiently, while AI image recognition can not only facilitate settlement, but also save a lot of labor costs. In August, 2019, Sodexo introduced the technology to one of its customer companies in France and tested it, finding that this technology is more efficient and responsive than manual settlement.

This attempt further confirmed the group's judgment on the digital capabilities of the Chinese market. "Headquarters know very well that Chinese consumers are not the same as overseas consumers. Based on this consensus, we believe that more emphasis should be placed on satisfying the unique needs of Chinese consumers according to those characteristics. And in the process of achieving this goal, the Chinese market has two major technological capabilities that are very important, one is AI and the other is data."

In China, the application scenarios of artificial intelligence are actually more advanced and go faster than those overseas. Especially the design of consumer experience scenarios is extremely plentiful. That, combined with the popularity of mobile payments, leaves Sodexo with myriad of room to try new ideas based on the characteristics of Chinese consumers.

Sodexo China serves 1.1 million customers a year, which generates a lot of data. "We are thinking about how to make use of the data to better serve consumers and let the data bring value under the premise of compliance and safety," Cheney said. Sodexo has successfully deployed an application scenario: after AI observed the users’ dishes and quantities, it calculates the corresponding calories based on each user’s physical data. Then they will receive a real-time personal healthy-diet report, telling them whether the caloric intake today exceeds the limit and providing suggestions of modes of exercise, in order to help users form healthy diets and lifestyles.

"The way we think about things is people-oriented," Cheney said. "Digitalization is just to help us better meet people's needs."

Pursuing People-Oriented Technologies

Sodexo is a French company, and also a global company, operating in 72 countries and territories. "France values humanism, so in terms of service, we would like to create a super ecosystem with Sodexo’s characteristics and people-oriented quality of life service."

In the digital transformation, Sodexo has found more opportunities in China through cooperation with some accelerators, incubators as well as innovation and entrepreneurship parks with the help of partners in the innovation ecosystem. For example, it has cooperated with Shanghai Jiaotong University and Shanghai Tongji University. In the future, it plans to cooperate with more universities to find the sources of innovation.

Compared with the traditional developed countries in Europe and the United States, China has unique advantages in innovation cost, technology and products, so there are more opportunities to try and experience in China. AEYE-GO is a successful case to achieve a win-win development.

"What we pursue is a technology that has human touch.” Cheney Guo said. Many people worried that artificial intelligence technology will replace human beings. He argues that in the short term, the machine can't completely replace human, and in the long run, AI will just replace the transactional work, liberating people from the tedious and boring work, which allows them to do more valuable work. More job opportunities will also be created at the same time. The relationship of human and technology is not about replacing, but a process of development in a harmonious way."

Sodexo, for example, has developed a nutritional meal IT solution for patients at a Shanghai hospital, providing services based on the patient's condition. Some diabetics could not eat sugary foods, and some gout patients could not eat foods with too much purine. Depending on different patients, the system will feed basic patients’ data back to chefs and dietitians, who will be able to select Sodexo's clinical dietitian's menu from the IPAD, rather than serving meals entirely in the standard meal format.

"Digitalization can be applied to the service industry which can make our service more detailed, more accurate and more humane. And this is what we are making efforts to do." Cheney Guo said.

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