Surviving the AI shift


Last year was a gamechanger for Artificial intelligence (AI), with tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook all spending exorbitant amounts on acquiring AI start-ups. The companies’ goal was to bring the niche AI expertise of these start-ups in-house, signifying that these industry juggernauts recognise the importance of having top notch AI-projects. AI is set to transform every aspect of our lives, including how we work, shop and socialise and companies around the world are striving to ensure they are leading the way.    

While AI is set to have impacts throughout our lives, one of the most profound will be the changes to our workplaces. Recent research showed 87% of workers believe their job will be will changed by AI within the next three years. Overseeing this transition to the seamlessly integrated workplace of the future remains a hefty task for many businesses. In particular, most firms face three distinct challenges; tackling the growing AI skills crisis, dealing with limited experience with AI projects, and coordinating humans to work in harmony alongside intelligent machines. To successfully shift towards an AI-friendly working environment, these issues must be resolved.   

Bridging the staffing gap  

A shortage of qualified staff is currently the biggest problem facing companies looking to accelerate their adoption and development of AI technology. Recent analysis from jobs site Indeed shows that there are at least twice as many job openings in artificial intelligence as there are suitable applicants, with the number of roles in the industry rising by 485% in the UK since 2014. Nor is the struggle to find sufficiently talented candidates for AI engineering roles exclusively a problem for tech giants like Facebook or Google. As AI goes mainstream, every industry will require staff that are able to develop and work alongside AI. As is often the case with hot new technologies, AI specialists are extremely rare and finding people with the right skills is proving to be a difficult task.    

Companies must look internally and make upskilling existing members of staff a key focus area, in order to ensure they have enough in-house knowledge. Doing this not only eases the skills shortage, but also enables staff to get to grips with how to operate and work alongside AI systems, reducing the possibility of job displacement in the future. AI-proficiency is likely to become a necessity for all employees at some point. In the meantime, when looking at potential new employees, key traits to focus on should include a background in data-handling, analytics or statistics. The foundations attained by working in these areas are essential when working with AI systems, so upskilled employees from these backgrounds are more likely to begin successfully handling areas such as the design of agile data structures or modelling the type of real-world uncertainties faced by AI algorithms on a daily basis.    

By investing in upskilling existing staff and helping them to become comfortable with the basics of AI, companies will be able to better focus their hiring resources and concentrate on filling more specialised roles. This can be either be achieved through permanent hires or by bringing in external consultants who can quickly enhance expertise or provide on-demand advice. Additionally, by accepting from the beginning that employees will require significant training, companies will be free to prioritise cultural fit and adaptability in the recruitment process over technical skill, which can help to reduce employee turnover.   

Consulting is key  

However, building the right team is only half the battle. AI projects are still in their infancy, and as a result there is increased possibility of significant misunderstanding when rolling out a new initiative. It is therefore crucial that at the beginning of any new AI project, a consulting team is established, comprised of business domain and data science experts alike. By assessing the business requirements, technical challenges and desired outcomes for all stakeholders, this specialist consulting group can not only ensure projects stay on track but also that engineers deploy the correct level of automation for the task in question.    

This is extremely important during the early stages of AI adoption. The attention required in later stages will lessen as the technology matures and begins to rely more on open source frameworks and platforms. Companies will have to do much less coding from scratch as a result. However, until this maturation comes to pass, it’s much better to take the time at the start of the project to ensure resources aren’t being wasted or misdirected than to discover this halfway through. For this reason, many firms launch AI projects with a small team, letting them evolve and scale up as opposed to trying to introduce AI to the entire company in one go. 

Striking the right balance 

After AI projects have been successfully trialled among a select team within a business, the wider roll-out needs to be managed. Executives will need to assess where they can place human employees to maximise efficacy as AI becomes more sophisticated and integrated into daily life.  Such decisions will include determining whether tasks should be undertaken by humans, are better left to machines or can be done most efficiently by combining the two. 

Take project management for instance – how could AI alter and improve execution of this crucial function of any business? One example of AI’s ability to transform project management performance is to introduce a platform that functions as Project Coordinator. Such a platform would complete day-to-day administrative tasks and free up employees to focus on more creative ideas in the process. Alternatively, companies might prefer simply use AI as an assistant to automate simple tasks while retaining a skilled Project Manager to oversee the project as a whole. The AI assistant could eventually also provide recommendations as it develops an understanding of project performance along the way.    

These are merely a sample of the possibilities that AI can provide. However, they are only achievable if companies have a healthy balance between employees with sufficient technical skills and the right corporate culture. The introduction of AI is an ongoing process and many departments may not yet feel the effects for a few years to come, however, it is inevitable that they will at some point in the near future. Therefore, executives need to think about how to survive the shift towards AI or risk getting left behind by more digitally-savvy competitors.    

Frank Palermo, Global Head of Digital Solutions at Virtusa 

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