AI Will Change the Workplace Quicker Than We Think

How the Technology Is Helping Businesses Work Smarter

Business adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating, fuelled by an explosion of data, rapid growth in cloud computing and the emergence of advanced algorithms.

According to CCS Insight’s survey of IT decision-makers in July 2017, 58 percent of respondents said they are using, trialling or researching the use of artificial intelligence in their organizations. Respondents to the same survey also estimated that as much as 30 percent of their business applications would be enhanced with machine learning within the next 24 months — a bullish view considering the technology’s well documented problems with trust, cost, and the lack of skills needed to train machine learning systems.

Speech-based and image-based cognitive applications are emerging at an accelerating rate in specific markets such as fraud detection in finance, low-level contract analysis in the legal sector and personalization in retail. There are also applications of AI emerging in corporate functions such as customer service, HR, sales and IT.

These early implementations indicate that over the next five years, AI will change the way we work and, in the process, transform businesses. And its arrival is perhaps moving quicker than we think.

The Intelligent Workplace

One of the most promising early areas of AI activity is in workplace technology, what marketers are now beginning to refer to as the “intelligent workplace”.

Forward-thinking companies are considering workplace AI as part of their digital transformation strategies and efforts to improve the employee experience. They are doing so against a backdrop of high levels of employee dissatisfaction with workplace technology, poor productivity and low employee engagement. Almost half of employees responding to CCS Insight’s survey of employees in North America and Western Europe in 2016, for example, said that their workplace technology did not fully meet their needs.

Employees are drowning in a sea of data and sprawling digital tools, using an average of 6.1 mobile apps for work purposes today, according to a recent CCS Insight survey of employees. Part of the reason we’ve seen a lag in macro productivity since the 2008 financial crisis is that we waste a lot of time doing mundane tasks, like searching for data, booking meetings and mixing cumbersome legacy technology with a complex web of disconnected enterprise and personal apps on a daily basis.

In this context, new AI capabilities pose exciting opportunities to evolve workplace technology.

  • Productivity apps. Assistive, cognitive features have become more prevalent in productivity software, such as search, quicker access to documents, automated e-mail replies and virtual assistants that display contextually relevant information for employees and can automate simple, time-consuming tasks. 
  • Voice control. The integration of voice or natural language processing in productivity apps will further boost productivity. The rise of speech-controlled smart speakers such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and the recently launched Alexa for Business show that creating and completing documents using speech dictation, or using natural language queries to parse data or control functions in spreadsheets are all on the horizon.
  • IT support. Many organisations are holding back their employees through poor IT support services that can drain productivity. Firms are looking to virtual agents and machine learning technologies to help automate low-level, repetitive and high-volume support problems like resetting passwords, logging help desk tickets and directions to self-service tools. First and foremost, these solutions are aimed at making employees more satisfied with workplace technology, but they can also help allocate IT support personnel to higher-value tasks.
  • Cybersecurity. Perhaps one of the biggest uses of AI will be to protect company information in the fight against spam, phishing attacks and malware. The alarming rise of data breaches across the globe, combined with a critical shortage of skills in cybersecurity, means that companies need AI to help them better detect risks and improve how they respond to incidents. This is why IT professionals in our 2017 survey of IT decision-makers listed cybersecurity as the most likely use for AI to be adopted in their organisations.

Tips to Get Going

Businesses of all shapes and sizes need to prepare for one of the most important technology shifts of our generation. For those who have yet to begin implementing a strategy, here are a few things to consider.

Start Simple

New, assistive AI features in off-the-shelf productivity and collaboration software are good places to start. They can help employees get familiar with the technology and its benefits. Smart e-mail, improved document access and search, chat bots and speech assistants can be simple and accessible technologies that can save time, improve workflows and enhance employee experiences.

Build and Buy

Take advantage of the tremendous amount of supplier investment in AI by combining build and buy approaches to the technology. Buy off-the-shelf solutions for horizontal applications such as security products that incorporate machine learning for threat intelligence and anomaly detection. Focus research and development and talent management strategies on building domain- and company-specific applications that improve your competitive advantage.

Mind the Fear

Not all employees will be immediately supportive of AI technology in the workplace. Although our surveys reveal employees are generally positive about the technology, there’s still a lot of fear and confusion about how AI could eliminate jobs, be prone to bias, or violate privacy. Be mindful of the importance of good communication, ethical uses, transparency and, above all, employee engagement throughout the process.

AI will no doubt face some challenges over the next few years as it enters the workplace. But more organisations are now focusing on how the technology can be used more effectively to assist employees, enable smarter work and a more intelligent workplace.

There is much in store for AI as enterprises become more familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. It will be a fascinating 12 months ahead.

A version of this article was first published by CMSWire and can be accessed here.

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