AI means business direction is forward, not back - Michelle Hawkins

How often in business are we encouraged to study the historical ebbs and flows of the market to model future strategies, to learn from the past?

No longer. That has now changed in a profound way. Rather than focusing on the past for insights, organisations are increasingly looking forward, aided by advances in artificial intelligence.

The rapid shifts we have seen in the economic environment and consumer behaviour, caused most recently by events that many of us have no knowledge or previous experience of, makes looking to the past for solutions meaningless.

In a survey that spanned 18 countries for our latest Business Futures 2021 report [1], at least 82% of executives said that the ability to learn from the future would be important to their organisation’s success in the years ahead. Yet only 31% of the executives said they are completely confident in their ability to foresee and respond to behavioural changes that affect demand.

To make better decisions about the future, we need new data sets, including real time data across the business value chain and new analytical approaches – all of which are now being made possible by AI.

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Applied across product development and sales life cycles, new sources of data and AI-driven models can provide companies greater confidence that they are on the right path to growth. At the same time, learning from the future can help companies prepare for risks. Engineers, for instance, are applying AI to leading indicators to make infrastructure more resilient against climate change.

AI gives us the ability to identify what works for a new and evolving today and what will be required to thrive tomorrow.

Scotland is well advanced in its AI thinking and there is expansive opportunity. The launch of the Scottish Government’s AI strategy in March this year set a course for Scotland to become a leader in the development and use of ‘trustworthy, ethical and inclusive AI’. Recognising the potential to improve services and save lives in healthcare, the strategy seeks to build on Scotland’s long history of academic excellence in AI development and a successful and well-connected AI community.

What is made clear in the document is that AI can contribute to economic, social and environmental goals, helping to drive business growth and improve people’s wellbeing. One of the pillars to success is collaboration, consultation and engagement across academia, industry, the public sector and the people of Scotland. The same multi-disciplinary approach is also vital within individual companies.

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We now know that we have to consider the unexpected and respond with open minds to the unlikeliest events. There is a need for a clean sheet approach to dynamic planning, drawing on inductive, AI-driven insights as well as creative thinking about what the future may hold. Instead of asking, say ‘What would we do if our servers went down?’ firms should ask ‘What would we do if there were no servers at all?’

Because no one knows what particular pieces of data will ultimately turn out to be important for predicting different events, there is also no such thing as valueless data. Organisations that take a wide-lens approach to data use, tracking hundreds of variables, can better inform their algorithms. With the value of data becoming more temporal than ever, given fast-changing circumstances on the ground, it is important that it gets used swiftly (or discarded if not used) and continually updated.

This is driving new partnerships, even between competitors, making it possible for organisations of all sizes to begin to realise the benefits of data.

The shift we are seeing is from experience-based top-down decision making to data-driven bottom- up decision making where employees augment their judgement and intuition with algorithms’ recommendations. The most effective organisations will be those who break down traditional business silos to bring together internal and external data.

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This, in turn, encourages employees to collaborate in an interdisciplinary manner, with core business, operational and data-science units working side by side. The goal will be to bring diverse perspectives to the table to ensure initiatives address strategic priorities, as well as to highlight users’ needs.

Confidence in decision making is critical. By implementing AI and making it far more accessible, a company once driven on ‘gut feeling’ becomes a data-driven enterprise.

Michelle Hawkins is managing director for Accenture, Scotland

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