Successful business more likely to adopt AI

Johannesburg, 14 May 2019
Read time 4min 10sec

According to research conducted by Microsoft, Altimeter Group and the University of St Gallen, South African firms with double-digit growth are more likely to be using artificial intelligence (AI) compared to lower-growth businesses.

Microsoft partnered with Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst focused on business and ethical implications of AI with the Altimeter Group, and Heike Bruch, Professor at and Director of the Institute for Leadership and Human Resources Management at the University of St Gallen, to produce the Pulse AI Research Report, which surveyed 1 150 leaders across EMEA and the US.

Globally, 37.8% of high-growth companies and 17.1% of lower-growth companies are actively implementing AI. In SA, the percentage of high-growth companies likely to be using AI is 31.8% versus 18.5% for low-growth companies.

High-growth companies are defined as those growing in double digits and low-growth companies as those experiencing single-digit growth.

In SA, 41.7% of these companies are expected to use more AI in the coming year to improve decision-making (45.5% globally), as compared to 20% (30.8% globally) of low-growth companies.

More local high-growth companies are also looking at using AI to optimise processes, 37.5% (40% globally), and to develop new products and services, 45% (33% globally) in the next year than lower growth companies, at 31.3% (33.3% globally) and 7.1% (24.7% globally) respectively.

For Etlinger, what's striking about the research is the difference between double-digit growth companies and those with lower growth. "Double-digit growth companies are further along in their AI deployments, but also see greater urgency in using more AI. They are looking at a one- to three-year time-frame, oftentimes really focused on the coming year. Lower growth companies are looking at more of a five-year time-frame. What this says to me is that the more you know, the higher your sense of urgency."

According to the research, successful leaders in business are looking to use AI to augment decision-making, drive efficiencies and help drive growth, including job creation.

High-growth leaders are not only using more AI now, they also feel a greater urgency to deploy more AI in the immediate future, not only to drive efficiencies, but growth too, and 87.3% of high-growth companies intend to invest in decision-making AI in one to three years versus 66.7% of low-growth companies that plan to invest in decision-making AI in three to five years.

These numbers are 86.6% for high-growth companies and 72.8% for low-growth companies.

As companies are deploying more AI (so AI becomes more prevalent in a company), it is freeing up business leaders to focus on other activities. When asked where leaders would like to invest more of their time and energy as AI becomes more common, motivating and inspiring employees was the number one choice. This was followed by identifying market opportunities and setting the right goals.

"Leaders themselves are thinking about how AI can unlock their own potential. As AI becomes more pervasive, leaders' number one priority is spending more energy on inspiring employees."

Realising the true benefit of AI is not simply about being fast adopters of innovative technology. Companies must build their own digital capabilities and innovations. Simply: every company needs to think of itself as a digital company, says Lillian Barnard, managing director at Microsoft South Africa.

Leaders actively embracing AI to augment their own expertise and strategic thinking helping in areas such as direction-setting and problem-solving, and the majority of leaders want support on refining their leadership skills as more AI is deployed.

Microsoft's goal is to ensure AI is available to everyone in a trusted manner and, importantly, all AI systems are designed to enhance what people do, and its approach to AI is governed by both compliance and values.

Microsoft is committed to providing education around AI, to dispel some of the myths and misinformation surrounding it. The research revealed that the more leaders know about AI, the more they recognise that they need to take responsibility for ethical AI deployment, something that is at the core of Microsoft's approach to AI.

Barnard adds that Microsoft believes that, when designed with people at the centre, AI can extend human capabilities, free up people for more creative and strategic endeavours, and help people and organisations achieve more.

"Business leaders have an important part to play in ensuring AI does not replace human ingenuity, but augments it. It's not just about what AI can do, but what it should do."