According to Microsoft’s AI Maturity in the Middle East and Africa report, the company is exploring a diverse range of AI opportunities to improve customer experience by personalising health goals. Photo: AP

JOHANNESBURG – When we think ground-breaking applications of AI, the insurance industry is probably one of the sector’s that needs it most.

For South African shared-value insurer Discovery, AI has proved instrumental in enabling the innovation, agility and business model reinvention that the rapidly evolving insurance industry needs. 

According to Microsoft’s AI Maturity in the Middle East and Africa report, the company is exploring a diverse range of AI opportunities to improve customer experience by personalising health goals; deliver operational efficiencies by automating manual processes through cognitive solutions; manage risk by identifying and supporting those at risk of developing chronic illnesses or being readmitted to hospital; and develop new products and services such as a chatbot and telehealth platform. 

It’s an indication of just how common AI is becoming. Business leaders across the Middle East and Africa are incredibly upbeat about the potential of the technology - and for good reason.

But to fully benefit from the age of AI, executives need to take their conversations around AI and turn them into business value. And the time to start implementing strategy is now, to gain competitive advantage while the region is still at the piloting phase of the AI maturity curve.

Early adopters have the edge

Microsoft’s AI Maturity Report tells us early adopters are most likely to be successful when it comes to attracting senior AI professionals.

Because the recruitment of AI talent has become extremely competitive – a trend that will intensify with time – it’s risky for companies to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, as they might find themselves trying to recruit skills from a shrinking talent pool.

Fast moving businesses can select talent from a wider group of professionals and because talent seeks out talent, it’s easier for these companies to attract the right skills.

The importance of recruiting and developing the right talent can’t be overstated. We know based on the AI Maturity Report that lack of talent is still the greatest barrier to implementation of AI within business operations.

The question is how can companies overcome this challenge?

Draw on external alliances

Companies across South Africa have had significant success accessing key AI skills by drawing on external alliances. In fact, 50 percent of report respondents indicate their company is either very or highly skilled at building external partnerships.

This strategy is one that mobile telecommunications provider MTN is prioritising as it looks to extend its relevance in the ICT sector by using AI technology to innovate and augment the way the company interacts and engages with consumers.  

Already the company is exploring voice recognition, chatbots and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to streamline and improve its call centres. And, as the organisation looks to these areas to discover how to optimise the business use of AI, it has made the strategic decision to partner with start-ups that have the skills needed to conceptualise how to get value from AI.    

Nurture ‘hybrid talent’ internally

Having and developing the right skills is key to success in AI. Advanced AI implementers understand the benefit of upskilling existing talent because they have such a critical understanding of the business. Executives surveyed for the report consistently say that hybrid profiles are the most valuable skillset when it comes to AI. Simply put, these are individuals with deep knowledge on specific business areas as well as strong technological proficiency.

Businesses can help nurture hybrid talent by fostering AI skills among internal skillsets. Online learning platforms such as Microsoft’s Cloud Society provide a valuable starting point. Cloud Society members have free access to courses on AI topics such as machine learning, computer vision and the like.

Foster collaboration and learning

One of the biggest challenges around introducing AI to business operations is the uncertainty it can cause amongst staff members.

Companies don’t always see the relevance of involving the entire organisation in a broad, collaborative approach to AI as the benefits of the technology are typically limited to specific functions.

The result is that few employees truly know what AI is or how it can help them do their jobs more effectively.

Rather than leaving AI to a few dedicated professionals, the most advanced companies in the region are opening up collaboration, which enables them to fully explore innovative opportunities.

Bridgestone South Africa, for instance, has taken a multi-pronged approach to collaboration and learning. The company has introduced low-risk tools like heuristic modelling for sales order processing, and sales and demand forecasting – and as the workforce becomes more comfortable with these tools, they will be expanded; it is also using consultants to educate senior executives about AI and digital opportunities.

Ultimately, the company aims to blend the experience of the on-the-ground sales force with AI-enabled tracking of consumer sentiment to develop tailored products and services – which requires a workforce with first-hand knowledge of the value of AI. 

Encourage a new generation of AI leadership

Nowhere is the development of internal AI skills more important than at the most senior levels of the business.

South African executives are realising that business acumen alone will not help them understand how AI is impacting their business. And as AI technologies become increasingly complex, leaders need to be able to launch, support and even evaluate AI initiatives against strategic business imperatives.

Research confirms that leaders across the region are grappling with issues of where and how to begin implementing AI across their companies. This is, in part, why Microsoft recently launched its AI Business School – so that leaders can access the support they need to mobilise their teams with confidence in the age of AI. Interest in the school has been significant - in the first six months of operation alone, the school has engaged more than 400 000 business leaders. Microsoft has also since expanded the initiative, including new and adapted modules within the school’s responsible learning path as well as content specifically for government leaders.

Taking that plunge and making an early investment in AI talent might seem risky, but if the experiences of other businesses across the region are anything to go by – not investing in the development of internal competencies might just be the greatest risk of all.Four steps to nurturing an AI-ready workforce.

Lillian Barnard is managing director at Microsoft South Africa.

BUSINESS REPORT