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“We can solve the greatest challenges of our time using technology and people”

Embracing new technologies such as AI and creating a strong digital culture will be critical to the future competitiveness of organisations, says Microsoft Ireland's Paul Shanahan

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to amplify and enhance people’s ability to the point where they will be able to solve the most perplexing problems facing society today. But that potential won’t be realised if leaders in organisations don’t demystify AI for their teams and create a world of understanding around the impact and value that technology presents to a modern workforce.

This is the view of Paul Shanahan, Cloud & Enterprise Business Group lead with Microsoft Ireland.

“There is apprehension around AI and its introduction to the workplace,” he says. “On the one hand we have new generations coming into the workforce who have grown up in a society where intelligent technology is widely used and accepted. On the other, we have older generations within the workforce who started working before smartphones and maybe even PCs weren’t in common use. For that older cohort it would be very easy to imagine AI as something from the future, something unattainable in today’s workplace.”

It's not about replacing people, it's about allowing them to be more effective

Responsibility for addressing the concerns of those employees falls firmly on the shoulders of the leadership, he contends. “Business leaders bear the responsibility for bringing their organisations with them on the digital journey and creating a digital culture where employees are given the right supports to use technology in their jobs,” he says. “They have to look at the skills required of their workforce today and where they need to be in the future. They will also have to ensure that people stay at the heart of their digital transformation as they enhance capability and skillsets through AI. It’s not about replacing people, it’s about allowing them to be more effective and ultimately give them back the thing that’s most precious to all of us – time.”

Recent research from Microsoft showed that digital culture is the key missing ingredient for an organisation’s digital transformation. It revealed that 84 per cent of Irish employees say they work in an organisation with a weak digital culture and alarmingly, 90 per cent of Irish employees reported low innovation in their organisation.

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Organisations do not have a choice - embracing new technologies such as AI and creating a strong digital culture will be critical to future competitiveness. “The reality is that AI is embedded in many of the services and applications people use on a daily basis,” Shanahan notes. “People are using it without realising it and organisations are increasingly using it to become more productive and competitive.”

Integrating AI to deliver business goals

The ways in which organisations are integrating AI into their operations falls into three key areas, according to Shanahan. “They are using it for conversational agents – commonly known as bots; intelligent apps; and for transforming existing business processes. Every organisation will start their journey in a different area and it will ultimately be determined by their particular business strategy and organisational goals.”

Microsoft has witnessed a huge upsurge in the usage of customer service bots. “Their impact has been very significant, particularly in terms of reducing first-line, FAQ-style customer services interactions,” he says. “We have seen these conversations reduced by over 95 per cent and this allows companies to get straight down with solving the more difficult and complex issues encountered by customers. This results in a greatly enhanced customer experience.”

Organisations have started to use AI to modernise and enhance the existing offerings that they supply to customers

Shanahan mentions how both HP and Carphone Warehouse used them to redesign their customer interaction and customer engagement model. “The initial interaction with customer care will be through a bot. The bot can ask the customer the initial questions to help pinpoint the problem and resolve it quickly. If that fails, the customer is connected to an agent with appropriate skills, who receives all the information given and the agent helps resolve the issue.” In the short term, Microsoft is bringing the conversation of AI to organisations, and using their expertise to deliver better experiences through awareness, education and knowledge transfer.

Indeed, smaller firms can use the same technology to offer a customer service facility. Other organisations have started to use AI to modernise and enhance the existing offerings that they supply to customers. This in turn leads to improved customer satisfaction.

Some companies have taken a more transformational approach and looked at their entire business and how they can use AI to enhance everything from financial forecasting through to supply chain operations.

AI and culture

Realising these benefits will require much more than an investment in technology, he points out. “A major shift in culture will be required. Organisations that will succeed with AI adoption will inherently have cultures that promote experimentation, learning agility and a growth mind-set. This means organisations need to shift their mindset from valuing people being right and knowing the answers to instead, valuing people that ask good questions and aren’t afraid to be wrong. Ultimately a learning culture will be a successful culture. In an AI world your staff need to adopt a position of ‘I'm ready to learn everything’; this has been key to AI adoption within Microsoft.

“AI in the workplace will enhance capability but, in some cases, it will change the way we work and some people will need to learn new skills as a result. Organisations need to invest in their people and make them comfortable working in data rich environments that are supported by intelligent technology systems.”

We're in an age where we can solve the greatest challenges of our time using technology and people

Microsoft has taken a number of steps to assist people and organisations in embracing AI. “We've launched our AI School which provides free training on the skills needed to adopt and build AI services. People can spend hours, weeks or months online and go as deep as they wish learning about AI. Our Artificial Intelligence platform, built on Microsoft Azure, will support open source technology to make it as accessible for every developer to utilise, not just those traditionally familiar with the Microsoft ecosystem. In addition, our AI Cognitive Services toolkits are plug and play style AI solutions that can allow for fast development and delivery so that people can learn quickly how the solution can have impact.“

Ultimately, the benefits of AI can only be realised through a combination of people and technology, Shanahan concludes. “If we take a principled approach of empowerment through AI, that instils trust and keeps people in control, it will allow people to use their ingenuity to deliver the most incredible responses to the most complex problems. We’re in an age where we can solve the greatest challenges of our time using technology and people. One can’t succeed without the other.”