Digital Transformation » Big Data » CFOs: Don’t let the AI train leave without you

A new breed of business applications, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), is creating up to 40% additional capacity within a business without increasing headcount. And we’re not talking about replacing humans with intelligent robots here. One of the common misconceptions with harnessing AI is that it requires a giant – and expensive – leap into alien territory.

In fact, AI falls into three distinct types. At one end of the scale, where most people are quite relaxed about dabbling, there is robotics: the relatively simple automation of repetitive functions.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you find the stuff of science fiction which tends to make people uncomfortable: self-improving machines that update their code based on what they have learnt.

In the middle of that AI scale is cognitive technology: the power behind intelligent applications. This drives huge efficiencies for businesses by automating straightforward decisions, releasing employees to concentrate on higher value tasks.

This middle-ground technology is a potent force which any business can access with minimal investment of time and money. Take a discrete enterprise problem, apply a solution based on cognitive technology alongside existing systems, and the results will speak for themselves.

The trouble is that this simple message about cognitive automation gets lost in the blizzard of information about AI which bombards CFOs from every direction. The concept of intelligent applications is lumped in with intelligent machines, confusing businesses about how AI can help, and making AI in any form seem a step too far.

Understanding that cognitive automation exists independently – and can deliver ROI in weeks – can be a light-bulb moment for CFOs who want to invest in AI without putting the company at risk.

Suddenly it’s possible to buy a day-return ticket for the AI Express: although few businesses choose to get off once they realise the benefits of automated decision-making.

The range of practical enterprise applications, coupled with a quick and clear return on investment, makes continuing the journey a no-brainer.

Step aboard for strategic, or operational, transformation

After the light-bulb moment comes rapid realisation of the power AI has to transform an enterprise, from enabling a completely new business model to driving huge efficiencies.

It powers fundamental changes to the way a business trades, enabling an organisation to function 24/7, and delivering additional capacity of between 30% and 40%.

If the claims sound extravagant, consider the amount of time skilled people spend on relatively mundane tasks, and how much more useful they could be to the business if an intelligent application handled the low-value jobs. For example, an HR department might receive half a dozen daily queries about maternity and paternity pay, each one requiring someone to look up personal details and figure out individual answers. That is the sort of simple decision-making that can be done by a cognitive application.

AI is at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Its power helps organisations capitalise on their two biggest assets: their data and their people.

How to start small

Artificial intelligence sounds so different from other technologies that businesses can be forgiven for assuming it cannot be married with existing systems, but they are wrong.

Intelligent services, enabled by a cloud-hosted cognitive platform, can live alongside current technology and be applied to a specific enterprise issue, no overhaul of technology stack required.

The investment is small, the implementation fast, the return sizeable – and you can usually see it within weeks. Quick and clear ROI makes it easy to extrapolate the benefits of automated decision-making for other business issues.

The AI solution is secure too. Although the cognitive technology sits in the cloud, no data is held at rest outside the organisation.

Starting small is the way to build trust, confidence, and a solid business case for AI.

Practical applications for AI in business

As consumers, employees are used to interacting with systems using forms of AI. Chatbots are ubiquitous in the consumer world and involved in everything from ordering pizza to delivering out-of-hours customer service.

Intelligent applications allow businesses to achieve the same efficient level of interaction in the enterprise world.

* Human Resources. Intelligent HR enables staff to get the information they need when they need it. It can help manage sickness and absence, automate the starters and leavers process, and much more.

* Payroll. Give employees the tools to submit expenses, timesheets, and holiday requests, anytime, anywhere. This removes the inconveniences, admin and distractions that harm

productivity and kill motivation while delivering managers with compliance certainty, consistency and transparency.

* Finance. A cognitive application reads, understands, and responds to most inquiries without the need for human intervention. At the same time it improves analytics and insight supporting the business and drives down the cost of delivering the finance function.

* Procurement. Cognitive technology drives an Amazon-like shopping experience and protects the business from maverick purchasing at the same time.

How to avoid snake-oil

There is no shortage of would-be suppliers talking about artificial intelligence and the benefits it promises enterprises, but how do you sort the wheat from the chaff?

Asking one simple question is the key: “What is your track record?”

You need to establish that the company talking the talk has actually walked the walk, so beware anyone promising an intelligent solution they have yet to deploy at scale. The credentials you want to see are real services delivered successfully and securely to real organisations.

Be aware too that some people may use the language of AI to describe simple robotic process automation software. The cognitive technology powering intelligent decision-making applications is a very different and much more powerful beast.

Do you want to be like Amazon or Toys R Us?

Understanding that AI is not as ‘out there’ as it seems, is the first step to using it to carry an enterprise, safely and at high speed, into the future. Ultimately AI is going to determine who wins and who loses in a competitive marketplace.

So here are three questions a CFO should be asking about AI today:

1. Do we as a business understand enough about this technology to work out where we can deploy it to maximum effect?

2. Where are our bottlenecks and where do we need to free-up highly skilled people to work on tasks of higher value?

3. What will our enterprise look like in three years’ time if we adopt this technology – and where will we be if we don’t?

Amazon or Toys R Us: that’s the choice.