Driving business agility and resilience in the age of AI
We’ve seen technology driving business transformation faster than ever before, with companies looking to quickly adapt and build resilience as we emerge from the crisis. In fact, our CEO Satya Nadella observed during our last earnings call that we’ve seen two years’ worth of transformation in two months.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly at the heart of business transformation and is changing how organizations make decisions and develop better products, services and customer experiences. As AI helps organizations discover, learn, and make decisions it is also playing a key role in the economic response: navigating the now, planning for re-booting and re-inventing to shape the ‘next normal.’ But how do you ensure your company gains business value from AI?
AI expert and producer of Exponential View Azeem Azhar eloquently observed, “Firms gaining the most from AI have invested in skilling their employees and building a positive innovation-oriented culture. It is that human capital, in tandem with AI technologies, that is the magic in the mix.”
To help business leaders effectively align skills, company culture and AI to drive successful transformation, we undertook a piece of international research among enterprise organizations in March 2020 (during the pandemic). We found that companies seeing the greatest value from AI are the ones that are cultivating a broad range of skills among their workers — and are also focused on how AI can support and augment their employees.
Call out of key stats
The most successful organizations focus as much on developing the skills of their people as they do on deploying AI.
- 93% of AI-leading firms are actively building the skills of their workers or have plans to.
- Two-thirds of their employees have already benefitted from reskilling programs, and 70% said they are confident their employers are preparing them for the AI world.
AI-leading firms are more successful in using AI to support their people:
- Nine out of 10 senior executives said they benefitted from AI supporting them in their work.
- Two-thirds of workers said they are AI-augmented.
- Employees also reported they are more motivated to deepen their skills, use AI, and re-invest time freed up to innovate, solve and collaborate.
To provide some color around these findings, I recently took part in a discussion with Azeem and a panel of experts from AI-leading companies. I was thoroughly inspired, and wanted to share some of their insights as I think they can help any business looking to use AI to adapt and return to growth.
Mott MacDonald – a focus on smart infrastructure and connected thinking
Mott MacDonald is a global engineering, management, and development consultancy. A firm that recognizes the ingenuity of its people as its most important asset, Mott MacDonald has taken on projects from helping deliver four of the UK’s COVID-19 emergency response hospitals, to replacing a double-deck road with an expansive tunnel in Seattle.
In looking to drive the most value from its AI deployments, Mott MacDonald stays focused on how AI can directly empower both its staff and its customers.
For example, they’re using an AI enabled tool from Microsoft called Project Cortex. The technology automatically connects and organizes the knowledge generated by its 16,000 worldwide employees – making it easily discoverable to teams across the organization. Simon Denton, business architect at Mott MacDonald noted during our discussion, “This is one of those sort of silent AI partners that’s really helping connect the organization and bring it together to help us achieve our mission of opening opportunities through connected thinking.”
When tasked with helping develop new infrastructure like roads and bridges, Mott MacDonald uses AI based scenario testing and schedule planning to help support clients globally make informed strategic decisions, achieve operational efficiencies and reduce risk when delivering complex major projects and programmes. Their MOATA digital twin platform combines device, social and environmental data with advanced analytics and machine learning enabling clients and citizens to see the unseen. For example, in Auckland, NZ, the platform is enabling swimmers to know where it’s safe to go into the sea, overcoming the uncertainties caused by heavy rain and wastewater overflows through predictive modelling.
Simon offered practical advice for businesses at the early stages of AI implementation: “It’s about building confidence and trust in AI. I think if people are starting [their AI] journey, I encourage them to start small and compare against outcomes that they are familiar with. When it comes to success with AI, it’s about getting your data in order.
Fourkind – the mindset change needed for AI to bolter strategic decision-making and resilience
Fourkind is a technology consultancy focused on how innovation can best tackle business challenges and unlock opportunities. A Microsoft partner, Fourkind helped the Swedish whisky distillery Mackmyra use AI to help create an award-winning new blend. The technology crunched massive data sets to suggest new recipes, which were refined by Mackmyra’s master blender with her years of experience and her discerning palate.
Jarno Kartela, the Principal Machine Learning Partner, sees technology increasingly augmenting workers, so skills like creativity and problem-solving become more important than ever before. “Technology like machine learning lets you simulate business environments, different outcomes and predict possible end results. I think that creates a lot of resilience for the companies adopting this type of technology. But, at the same time, I think creative problem solving and strategic design skills will become even more important because machine learning will move from automating things, to helping augment people to solve problems. This will become even more important in times like these.”
During our discussion, Jarno also provided his insight into how AI adoption often varies between business functions. “I think it’s clear that business functions that have a fast feedback loop are triumphing because they can explore new technologies faster as they can try out new things with certainty, knowing if they work or not. Which means that some might be more afraid of using AI in R&D and for strategic purposes. You can easily see that sort of fear of adopting new technology, like in the whiskey case, where, as you can imagine, when people [in the industry] heard that we’re going to make whiskey with computers – it was like nothing, they had ever seen or heard.”
Robovision – the importance of democratizing AI
Robovision is a company focused on helping companies use AI and data visualization to stay a step ahead of the marketplace.
Johnathan Berte, founder and CEO, talked about his vision of the future: “It’s all about democratizing AI. We want to get AI from the data scientist department to specialist and normal people everywhere, so they can build their own deep learning models, create data and annotate it.”
It was fascinating to learn about how the company’s technology is enabling radiologists to create deep learning models – ultimately allowing them to more quickly analyze CT scans of COVID-19 patients to assess lung health and help plot the best treatment plan.
And, I think Jonathan’s comments about the importance of making it easy for physicians to work with data is valid for many companies as they look to move AI from the hands of data scientists into the hands of employees: “The radiologists need a good environment to enter data, so you need tools for predictive labelling and to use machine learning to spot mistakes among these data curators. There are no medical specialists on the frontline who have a lot time right now.”
A future where AI empowers all of us
AI is quickly evolving to become a technology that can empower every employee, so learning about AI should not be limited to people with a technical background. This kind of shift requires a real culture change, where innovation and continuous learning are actively embraced by all.
The bottom line is that in a world where every company is becoming a technology company, businesses need to prioritize skills as much as tech. To borrow Azeem’s phrase, this really is the “magic in the mix,” for companies looking to become more agile, build resilience and seize new market opportunities.
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