In 2019, we conducted research with business leaders about the perceptions and usage of artificial intelligence (AI) to help understand the challenges they face as they contemplate AI to accelerate their businesses. The outcome of those findings led us to write A Practical Guide to Understanding AI, a brief, 10-chapter guidebook to help business leaders make decisions about this complex technology in understandable language.
Like any new strategy and endeavor, we had high expectations for it, preparing to put this guide into the hands of countless leaders. But often, best laid plans get derailed by current realities.
Case in point: our release date happened within days of the pandemic shutting down the world as we knew it.
In our world of design and technology, disruption is a common theme. Our purpose is to help leaders activate new ways to grow and accelerate their businesses – and as a result, positively impact the people they employ and serve – by leveraging the transformative power of AI and IoT. But disrupting thinking is much more difficult than disrupting actual daily workflows – and that’s what the pandemic did. It forced many industries and businesses to rethink business as usual, in part because business as usual wasn’t an option.
In hindsight, AI and other emerging technologies like IoT weren’t the disruptors they are sometimes painted out to be, it was a virus. Instead, it was technology that helped restore and offer alternative pathways to what wasn’t working. As a result it has brought continuity and new levels of accessibility to the mainstream.
Early in the pandemic, many businesses were forced to focus on short-term strategies for mere survival – and that’s understandable. But going forward, the waves of Covid appear to be more like high and low tides that might never fully subside. High tides might require more hands on deck, and receding low tides present opportunities to reevaluate strategies for both the near and long term. Nearly 21 months after the first shelter-in-place orders were announced, we can look back and see how agile businesses can be – and how adoption of digital technologies are propelling businesses forward.
Understanding what’s possible
When we asked leaders, pre-pandemic, how they might utilize AI to achieve desired business outcomes, the responses weren’t about innovation or even breakthrough ideas. They wanted AI to help them achieve two straightforward objectives:
- To improve operational efficiency
- To improve what already exists
The unique circumstances of a global pandemic presented businesses with an opportunity to pursue improving both.
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AI empowered practical responses during the pandemic
In an article published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum titled “COVID-19 increased the use of AI; here’s why it’s here to stay” we see practical applications of AI at work that we might easily take for granted today, or not even recognize as being powered by AI. For example:
- In retail – automated scheduling, contactless pick-up, and autonomous stores became new standard operating procedures that continue to thrive, as did real-time inventory tracking for key items that were in demand at various points during the pandemic
- In healthcare – greater adoption of telehealth, virtual options and chat bots to better facilitate and streamline the patient experience during a heightened period of health and wellness concerns
- In manufacturing – increased use of automation, smart sensors and edge devices to improve operational efficiencies in-plant and at remote locations, especially in a time of restricted travel
- Across work, in general – the rapid acceleration and scale of remote working and data sharing to maintain business productivity for workers globally
Perhaps the most striking takeaways were these, which cited AI’s acceleration and business success during the pandemic:
“While AI was already on a journey from the fringes to a core-value offering before the start of 2020, the pandemic hasn’t slowed its trajectory as might have been expected. Appen’s State of AI 2020 Report reflected that 41% of companies have, instead, accelerated their AI strategies during COVID-19 – and three-quarters of organizations surveyed cite AI as critical to their success in 2020.”
Time to accelerate
Part of our own journey during the pandemic was to demonstrate the same strategies we advocate our clients employ as they look to improve business efficiencies and what already exists. To help with that, we spent the early months of the pandemic building Auris – a digital solution that consists of pre-built IoT assets that enable companies to get connected to the cloud, gather insights, and create value faster and smarter.
And here’s why:
The need for digital solutions – both AI and IoT – continues to grow. Leaders need help with the digital tools to fulfill their business objectives (operational efficiency, improve what exists). But as the pandemic has shown us, this need is accelerating much faster than many could have imagined. The question is no longer if businesses will embrace AI and IoT, but when. Further, the speed desired to respond to market conditions has never been greater, and getting connected with AI and IoT now affords companies the insights and business agility to respond to challenges that are still unforeseen.
As we look back to what felt like an ill-timed launch of our AI guide, we can see today that it couldn’t have been a better time for business leaders to contemplate how their business might not only function but thrive, from anywhere in the world, via the cloud.
It rarely feels like the right time to lean into something completely new. But what might seem like an inopportune time to embrace AI or IoT today will prove it was worth it in the months ahead, as it’s never too soon to act on strategies that accelerate business growth.
Looking at it from a different business perspective, the pandemic has shown us that, at a minimum, any good contingency or disaster planning should include technologies solutions that involve the cloud, real-time data analysis, and the ability to empower employees to meet customer needs. In essence, that’s AI and IoT.