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BusinessDay: Should my business use AI?

By Johan Steyn, 18 January 2022

“All this artificial intelligence (AI) stuff sounds very exciting. But where do we even start on the journey in my business?” That is a question that most business owners and senior executives are asking at the moment.

Every business is becoming a software business. It is through software that we manage our processes, build our offerings and service our customers. AI and machine learning (ML) are imperative for every business. As long as you take the right steps, follow the right plans and take your organisation effectively on the journey with you, you will be successful.

Most of us work in a “traditional business” that has been around for many years. We have lots of technical debt and legacy systems, and our workforce may not all be ready or even suited for the introduction of new disruptive technology.

Many of us wish we worked for an “AI-first” business like Uber, or even for one of the “trailblazers” like Google, Facebook or Alibaba. Imagine how amazing it must be to be part of an AI startup, where AI and ML are underscoring your whole business from day one?

So if you ask “Should we be on an AI journey in my business?”, my answer will be “Absolutely.” But I will also want to add, “Maybe not now.”

“So why wait?” you may ask. I would advise you to ensure that you first lay the right foundation before you introduce smart technology in your organisation. You have to align with the business strategy. What problems and challenges do you need to address? It is possible that AI or ML are not the answer to your problems. You need to understand your AI ambitions. What is the reason you want to embark on this journey? Often, it is the classical fear of missing out: “Others are doing it, so we’d better do it too.”

Many of your staff may feel insecure about their future when you start talking about the introduction of AI and robotics. You need to take them by the hand on a journey of discovery. Rather speak about co-botics: the fact that this technology should enhance our jobs, rather than replace us.

You need a well-formulated plan regarding the impact of AI on your current ways of working, and the skills needed. New roles need to be introduced if you do not have them already, like data scientists and AI engineers. You may be working in a market where these skills are limited, in which case you need to consider a hybrid model of upskilling your staff while utilising the expertise of a third-party vendor.

Its starts and ends with data, as it is the lifeblood that smart technologies live and operate by. Are you harvesting enough and suitable data from your internal business operations and from your clients (if you have their permission and adhere to regulation?) Behind every AI strategy is an effective data strategy.

Many businesses are successfully implementing AI technologies, enabling them to work more smartly, faster and to gain significant market share. The possibilities for your business are endless as long as you embark on a people-first strategy and do not focus primarily on technology.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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