Genius: Xiaodu, an artificial intelligent robot developed by Baidu, is said to have access to the company’s search engine database and the ability to respond to voice commands. Picture: REUTERS
Genius: Xiaodu, an artificial intelligent robot developed by Baidu, is said to have access to the company’s search engine database and the ability to respond to voice commands. Picture: REUTERS

From incredible advances in autonomous vehicles and 3D printing to broadening application across banking, medicine, manufacturing and retail – to name a few — artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere.

Every company worth its salt will have spent time assessing the effect this digital disruption will have on their business and their industry.

Many companies will also have invested large sums of money in testing various forms of AI – typically targeting operational efficiencies through robotic process automation or improved digital self-service through chatbots. Yet few will have managed to move beyond the pilot phase into full-scale production. In most cases, this is not due to the technology but the existing business reality.

This is going to be the year in which artificial intelligence moves out of labs and into mainstream

Data continues to be stored in different places and in different formats. Many operating systems are not fully integrated. And many decisions and actions continue to be taken by staff, outside of systems, and it is not that easy to automate these when key pieces of the puzzle are not connected.

To get it connected usually requires changes to existing systems, processes and people. That is why most, if not all, disruptive businesses are started from scratch rather than emerging from existing business models, unlocked by the application of AI.

For existing businesses built and perfected over decades, the disruptive implications of AI remain daunting. And this slows down adoption.

Breaking down what has worked and replacing it with what should work takes courage, leadership, time and money. It also requires shareholders with a long-term investment horizon that tolerate a dip in performance before the lift can be realised — not something most executives have the luxury to work with. In many cases, it is forced on companies as they scramble to respond to a disruptive market entrant that threatens their very survival.

So how do executives prepare their organisation for the digital era while driving improved performance via their existing business models?

How does one migrate a legacy business model to a digital reality without being forced to run parallel business models or engage with a transformational overhaul from day one?

Take the contact centre. Sure, it is tempting to get rid of all your agents and ask your customers to self-serve via chatbots. The financials make sense. But that requires you to first build a chatbot capable of answering all customer queries in a way that satisfies the customer.

Doing this within an innovation lab and hoping the digital team will get it production-ready is wishful thinking. There are too many possibilities to capture using traditional decision-tree coding techniques, and the amount of rich unstructured data is seldom enough to achieve acceptable, predictable outcomes via machine learning. As a result, the project struggles to get out of pilot phase simply because the risk of a poor customer experience is too high.

A more pragmatic approach is to stick with your existing human interfaces and augment them with digital intelligence. This gives you room to learn and make mistakes, because your staff can step in when your digital logic is found wanting. It means approaching AI from a both-and position, not an either-or one. In other words, including, not excluding staff in your digital mix. Only once you have perfected your digital logic do you then look to adopt purer forms of digital autonomy.

This approach not only applies to contact centres. Sales is another example. Instead of trying to perfect a chatbot to effectively sell your products online, start by offering all sales representatives access to a digital sales adviser they can use when dealing with customers.

Let the digital adviser help them sell better. Perfect the logic with them co-piloting the customer engagement. Allow them to learn the differentiating behaviours that will make them better than a chatbot. And all the time keep learning and improving your sales logic until it’s time to give it a digital interface.

This can also be used in technical support and any number of other operational areas. By initially building digital experts that augment, not replace staff, it allows you to realise business benefits without being forced to transform the business model to make it work. Not only will it enable staff to do more with less training, but you start building critical data that helps you shape and optimise your digital logic.

As the logic gets more robust and accurate, you can look to adopt more digital interfaces where relevant. By that time you will have empowered your staff to think and operate within a digital world; one where prescribed decision logic will increasingly be tackled by technology and where the human role shifts to perfecting the behaviours that help differentiate the customer experience.

Intelligence augmentation (IA) offers existing businesses a pragmatic first step into the digital era. It focuses on getting the back-end logic or intelligence perfected before you try to perfect the front-end experience. It also allows staff to increasingly develop their emotional quotient given that their intelligence quotient can increasingly be supplemented digitally.

This is going to be the year in which AI moves out of the labs and into the mainstream. And intelligence augmentation solutions will be one of the key ways existing businesses achieve this outcome.

• Falkenberg is CEO of Clevva.