Opening remarks:

We suggest to our clients and readership to consider digital transformation holistically. They are encouraged to seek expert advice, taking business requirements into consideration.

It is not intended to be a prescriptive roadmap for rolling out AI innovations or to give a complete inventory of the current challenges. Instead, the information provided captures the current trends that could be a useful trajectory for individuals and a pathway for enterprises in this rapidly evolving field. 

This is the first of four in the series “Bridging digital capability gaps: an AI perspective”.

The global health crisis has forced businesses of all sizes to step up their digitalisation in ways that would not have been thought possible some 18 months ago. Divesting assets to fund digital growth has become a top priority for businesses. Digital transformation has spread across all industries. And it is well documented that companies that had invested in digital tools were able to reap the benefits of their initiatives and make the most in terms of return on investments. 

When the pandemic took hold, they suffered less from the disruption of their service offerings compared to other companies that got there unprepared. 

According to the OCDE, the gap will even grow larger if nothing is done. Within the basic digital services repertoire, cloud is considered as the bare minimum to stay in the competition, especially when it comes to participating in global supply chain. Unfortunately, SMEs have sometimes been inclined to retain their data and hardware on site. The reasons: potential obstacles inherent to cloud technologies. Some were concerned about the lack of data control and raised issues of data sovereignty. Others feared being locked-in or targeted for price discrimination.

Automation and AI

While the digital uptake of companies will kick off with migrating to the cloud, the other step will be to seek the automation of processes.

Back in the 19th century, there were concerns that machinery was not a worthwhile innovation and that its progress would be at the expense of hardworking farmers. Instead, machines contributed to reduce the price of goods, increasing demand. Next, specialised labour like managers, accountants and machine operators became novel occupations as companies grew larger. The same riddle was brought back with the hype around AI (see example of a previous discussion on Automation in Canada: Should we fear for jobs?)

Yet after so many false starts, AI is definitely back. It has the potential to reduce repetitive tasks and increase productivity. But what, you ask is really AI ?

An attempt to give a definition is still causing heated debate as its application is wide ranging; from tourism to medicine to oil & gas to financial services, as well as including disciplines such as Philosophy, Law, Economics, Linguistics, Computer engineering to name but a few. 

Otherwise, a system “exhibits AI” when it can help a machine to “think” like a person. AI has become an umbrella term for topics like Big Data & Analytics, Internet of Things, digital twins, Industry 4.0 and Machine Learning (ML). And ML is considered as the most disruptive technique of all. 

The competitive advantage that automation brings is so strong that AI is integrated as a tool within business goals. Some of the most common applications include Dashboards for strategic analytics and insights (we are humans and outward appearances matter), chatbots (to perform mundane tasks such as appointment scheduling or help & assistance for a 24/7 service); voice-based services (for mobile customers on the move).

Another key area of AI innovation is to aim to better understand a customer through the use of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system (useful to reveal information about what products clients order, at what frequency and what suitable periods of the year).

Last but not least, today’s companies are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks. For example, studies have shown that SMEs are even more exposed as their protection is inadequate or simply does not exist. This problem has been accentuated with the recent shift to online and remote work. However, these threats can originate from a malicious insider or an infected USB stick to an insecure remote access or a sophisticated cyberattack. Here, AI can be used as a cybersecurity tool to stop attack or raise alerts before the worse happens. That could be a breach of data, loss of brand equity, as well as financial and reputational damage.

Parting remarks

On a final note, it is imperative to invest money in technology but for some companies, for SME leaders/ startup founders and their technical staff, it is still a step in the unknown since the pandemic has put a strain on their balance sheets. And for them, the road to digital might still be a long way off, let alone adopting advanced technologies such as AI. 

Yet, companies such as Cisco have been able, through the Cisco Networking Academy to train some 11 million individuals in more than 180 countries, so they could acquire digital skills for their future. They also have an on-the-job training scheme for former inmates. Earlier in our career working in the public sector, we had the chance to coach and mentor a few of them eager to learn, to embrace a new future and career in technology. 

In addition, there is a push for “democratisation of AI” (another hot topic), to make it more accessible and affordable. A case in point is the ongoing development in Software 2.0 (code written by AI) or Cloud providers embedding ML Operations (ML Ops) tooling on their platforms.

The power of AI should reside not in replacing humans but in helping them along the way. Despite a number of false starts, AI has come to shake off the shackles and obstacles of its past. Automation has grown by leaps and bounds with its adoption being embraced by companies in all sectors and industries. The process of digitalisation has been accelerated due to the constraints imposed by the pandemic.

The returns are huge for small, medium and large enterprises alike. But the potential to expand further are even bigger. And we will help along in your decision-making process.