GenAI in SA sees shift from curiosity to usage phase

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 28 Jun 2024
At least 24% of frontline workers in SA have received training on GenAI.
At least 24% of frontline workers in SA have received training on GenAI.

Surveyed employees across South Africa are seeing significant benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (GenAI), with the majority saying it saves them several hoursper week in productivity time.

This is one of the key findings of a new report published by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), titled:AI at work 2024: Friend and foe.

The study follows the firm's inaugural research on AI in work last year and is based on a global survey of more than 13 000 employees in 15 countries and regions. It was conducted by BCG's tech build and design division BCG X.

According to the study, the sentiments of South African employees about AI and GenAI are evolving significantly, but cautious optimism endures. Ninety percent of respondents using GenAI for work in SA agree it has saved them time, with another 42% reporting confidence in its impact on their work, compared to 26% surveyed at around this time last year.

Around 87% of local respondents reported experiencing an improved quality of work, saving them time to focus on strategic work (86%) and reducing time spent on administrative tasks.

However, anxiety about the emerging technology is also on the rise, by 5%, and 49% of regular users believe their job may disappear in the next 10 years due to the development of AI and GenAI − a view shared by only 24% of workers who do not use them.

According to BCG, the survey was conducted at a critical phase in the maturation of GenAI, as companies move beyond pilots and start to integrate the technology into the fabric of their organisations.

Nearly two-thirds of surveyed company leaders globally said they are starting to implement GenAI tools to reshape their companies.

"Our survey exposes the double-edged nature of GenAI,” says Sylvain Duranton, MD and senior partner at BCG and a co-author of the report.

“Familiarity correlates with both comfort and fear. GenAI is a revolutionary technology, so these opposing reactions should not be surprising. By recognising the complex ways in which humans understand and interact with GenAI, leaders can reshape their organisations to maximise the strengths and value of both their human and machine workers.”

According to the study, engagement with GenAI has increased over the last year, particularly with frontline employees − more than twice as many reported using the tool regularly as in 2023, and 43% of them do so for work.

The report notes that least 24% of frontline workers in SA say they have received training on how GenAI will transform their jobs.

It also highlights that 51% of local leaders have received training on how technology will impact or transform their jobs.

“It is fascinating to see how confidence in the technologies is increasing, right alongside the increasing fears and anxiety,” says Jacqueline Foster-Mutungu, MD and partner at BCG, Johannesburg.

“GenAI is having a transformative impact across a myriad of industries the world over. South Africa is not immune to these changes. It is important to recognise these changes and their impact on work (and employees) in the country so that industry leaders can chart a sustainable way forward.”

Although companies have made strides in training their employees since last year’s survey, there remains potential for further growth, looking specifically at progress in training frontline employees, which is at only 24%, compared with 51% of leaders.

This should equally contribute to an increase in usage, with 71% of South African respondents reporting regular usage compared to the global average of 82%, notes the study.

“GenAI has come a long way. We are witnessing a crucial shift from curiosity to increased usage and really harnessing relevant benefits,” continues Foster.

The impetus now is for organisations to think even more strategically about these technologies beyond just increasing productivity, but really creating a step-change in the effectiveness of talent attraction, selection and retention, among other use cases.”

Respondents from comparable countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria and those in the Middle East were more consistently bullish and less anxious than respondents in mature markets about GenAI. These countries have a higher proportion of regular users of GenAI at work among leaders, managers and frontline employees than the advanced economies markets, the study states.