AI and automation are linchpins for post-pandemic business success

These powerful technologies, partnered with human counterparts, can actually help businesses become more human and deliver greater value to customers.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders weren’t racing to understand the role artificial intelligence (AI) could play in optimizing business operations, boosting profitability, and driving innovation. In a 2019 survey of global executives, McKinsey found that only 58% said their companies had incorporated AI into at least one process or product. Many didn’t fully grasp the potential applications and value of AI, and, as a result, adoption wasn’t scaling quickly. In the same McKinsey survey, about three-fourths of companies that had adopted or planned to adopt AI said they would increase their investments over three years, the majority by just 10%.

That was then, however. Now, since the pandemic struck, investment in AI platforms has skyrocketed, shifting from a “nice-to-have” initiative to a full-blown business imperative. The catalyst was the disruption to “business as usual” and the gaps exposed in digital transformation initiatives where human capital and existing resources, and processes could not scale to meet increasing demands introduced by the pandemic. It became immediately clear that digital intelligence and automation were suddenly the only solutions that can perform urgent jobs at scale.

In both the short term and the long term, and across back- and front-office applications, AI has the potential to add value to business workflows, augment employee capabilities, and harness the power of man and machine to improve customer experience.

How AI tools can help companies meet urgent needs

Thanks to COVID-19, the future of work is here today as companies become “digital-first”. In the face of urgent digital transformation, businesses of all sizes and industries are finding that automating routine tasks can help employees meet demand quickly and better serve customers. The pandemic created an unprecedented need for speed and scale in addressing customer queries, beyond the capabilities of human staff.

For example, one airline saw cancellation requests explode from an average of 500 to 4,000 per day. In another instance, a large bank had to promptly update 6 million loan records, a project that would take an estimated 100 people working for two years. In a third, meal delivery service Sun Basket faced a sudden 50% spike in case volume when the pandemic hit and needed to adapt their customer service quickly. Without automation, these companies could not have achieved the speed and scale required and maintained their relationships with customers. 

Investing in AI tools can improve profitability in a moment when many businesses are doing more with less. In the McKinsey survey, a majority of executives at companies that were using AI said it led to higher revenue, and 44% said it reduced costs. But AI doesn’t just drive efficiency — it delivers value. For one, AI tools can free up workers to focus on higher-level tasks, such as customer engagement.

One example is AI-powered chatbots. As they’re becoming more sophisticated and conversational, bots can serve as a lifeline to provide faster customer service for routine queries at scale, at a time when many companies don’t have the resources to expand hiring. By learning from patterns over time, bots not only get better and faster at solving problems, but can also surface insights that help improve products and train agents. 

AI solutions can also provide personalized insights that improve customer engagement, whether it’s suggesting a “next best action” to a service agent or salesperson, or recommending a product to a customer. According to recent Salesforce research, 73% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations, but only half feel that companies generally do so. At the same time, 62% say they’re open to businesses using AI to improve their experiences. I’ll just say that again. Most customers are open to companies using AI to deliver better experiences!

The reality is that right now, machine learning tools can help bridge this gap by helping humans do their jobs better and enabling seamless, customized engagement at scale.

The long-term impact and benefits of AI

An investment in AI not only has immediate impact, but also provides longer-term opportunities to unlock new sources of value and drive growth. Today, many uses of AI involve iterating on existing processes to improve efficiency and productivity. In the future, organizations can use AI to reimagine business processes and operational models altogether, finding new ways to measure and deliver real-time value.

For example, Land O' Lakes, the American agricultural company best known for its butter, until recently relied on a slow and disconnected legacy system that required multiple tools, extensive infrastructure, and hard-to-find developer skill sets. The challenges and changes presented by COVID-19 didn’t help. They turned to automation and AI to bring together sales, marketing, and commerce to streamline its supply chain management process, enabling a stronger flow of work for both our customers and our employees.

Land O’ Lakes built a new system in less than 30 days, transforming its e-commerce and supply chain management processes — increasing company productivity by 25%. The company now uses AI and automation at scale to offer its 2,500 farmers, 1,000 retail partners, and 10,000 employees real-time purchase information on their e-commerce platform along with shipping and tracking data. The supply chain holds 50% of all transaction volume and reuses data 30% more data between applications — resulting in a more integrated, transparent, and scalable business.

AI has the potential to bridge current organizational silos between business units. Historically, these departments have been kept separate to maximize efficiency toward the mantra of “cheaper, better, faster.” Technology reinforced these divisions as the platforms each team uses seldom communicate with each other. Tools like AI and RPA can create connections across organizations, enabling a holistic view of the customer that enables delivering personalized value in real time.

New opportunities will also emerge for humans to work in concert with machines to amplify overall impact. For example, the World Economic Forum predicts that demand will increase across industries for specialists in AI and machine learning, process automation, robotics, digital transformation, and the Internet of Things. Instead of just using AI to do the same things better, these partnerships between humans and smart tools can unlock new possibilities for delivering real-time value and unleashing a new kind of workforce.

From iteration to innovation

The pandemic has served as a catalyst for companies to embrace the business benefits of AI. Pilots and large-scale implementations that would’ve normally taken years have taken place in weeks or months. The value of automating repetitive, mundane tasks has become clear in the face of an urgent need to engage customers digitally at scale.

Thinking further ahead, AI tools can not only improve existing processes but also create novel ways of working. With ethical implementation and reskilling of employees, these powerful technologies, partnered with human counterparts, can actually help businesses become more human and deliver greater value to customers.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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