In 2003 Nick Carr declared that IT had become a ubiquitous commodity with no competitive advantage. Since then cloud computing has eliminated any remaining strategic value in traditional IT organizations.
Barriers to access are all but gone. Today the essential functions of business are serviced by free or inexpensive and easy-to-use tools. Competitors have equal access to all the same IT and share the same pool of IT talent, which is increasingly outsourced.
In the cloud era the cost of switching to new tools is primarily cultural, not financial. Today, choosing between Slack and Microsoft Teams is like toiling over the choice to splurge on 3M brand Post-It notes or getting a deal on the generics. Can you imagine conducting a TCO analysis to help you decide on Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks coffee for the break room?
You are not going to outrun your competitors because you purchased better office supplies. Speed is now the commodity we’re all bidding for. To win you need to produce radical efficiency gains, the likes of which haven’t been seen since businesses went digital in the first place. Those gains will be brought to you by artificial intelligence.
The way forward: Intelligence technology
At the same time, adopting AI is going to take time and money. These don't have to be net-new expenditures. If you still have line items in your budget for IT, now is the time to direct most of that to AI. IT isn’t going to disappear as we know it now, but it is going to have to become part of a larger strategy, integrated into an intelligent system. Intelligence technologies may just be the saving grace for making information technologies strategically relevant again.
There's massive opportunity right now for companies that can bridge the ambition-execution gap in AI. In a recent report the Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan found that "only about one in five companies has incorporated AI into some offerings or processes." The majority of executives surveyed (60%) say “a strategy for AI is urgent for their organizations.” So why do only 50% actually have one in place?
AI is not a "nice to have" futuristic product feature. It’s a virtuous cycle of productivity that can collect, interpret and utilize data at a scale beyond human ability.
To maintain competitive advantage in the near term, you'll have to go one step further and adopt an intelligence-technology framework, built on the IT foundation you already have. That means integrating AI-powered automation and prediction at scale, across all business units.
This isn't magic; it's work that can be executed in three simple (but not easy) steps.
Step 1: Clarify what’s working in your business and automate as much of that as possible. With new advancements, IT processes can be more and more integrated into an AI system, and automated.
Step 2: Use AI to collect and interpret data on what's not working and why.
Step 3: Based on your analysis, make a prediction for what will work better. Automate the implementation to keep improving your machine learning systems.
As for your old systems, continuing to invest in IT for IT’s sake isn’t sustainable. Your customer database, for example, needs to be much more than just the database. Now it’s the foundation for data fueling AI. Systems such as payroll or time-tracking must be able to be integrated into a larger system, and not left to limp along behind.
Intelligence technology is the last frontier of productivity. It’s the fastest, easiest way to end dumb work, which, in turn, creates capacity for strategy and R&D.
Intelligence or bust
A lot more can be written about each of these three steps, but the most important thing is to get started. You don’t have time to conduct exhaustive research and build the perfect process before wading in. Work strategically and intentionally, but start now.
It’s going to be messy at first. To adopt a new framework for how to operate competitively and shift to intelligence technology will completely disrupt business as usual. This isn’t a shift relegated to one department. Operations and culture will have to be re-wired throughout your organization to make this a success. We’re talking about introducing a new teammate: Your people will be working with, not on, machines.
For this reason IT can’t just be owned by one department. Everyone at every level of the organization will need to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of a system that’s currently couched in hype and mystery.
How do we get our people to work together more efficiently within a complex organization? We get them to collaborate with one another and sit on the same side of the table. That cultural shift isn’t a “one and done” but an ongoing practice that takes time to adopt and adapt.
The same is true of integrating AI, but to an even greater extent. Customer service and marketing teams should interact with the AI as much, if not more, than your developers. Their insights and direct customer experience are instrumental in training intelligent systems. As members of your team engage directly with AI, they’ll see the value firsthand.
The net result in your organization will be the elimination of needlessly repetitive work. Just as IT originally transformed internal communications and manual labor to fuel the rise of information-based technologies and strategies, so too will AI transform the workplace and business, and IT, as we know it. There will be more space for strategy and R&D: the kind of work best done by humans. The sooner companies recognize this shift, the greater their advantage as AI grows from the IT we know today.
Ben Lamm is the co-founder and CEO of Conversable, a conversational intelligence platform. He was previously the the founder and CEO of Chaotic Moon Studios, a global creative technology powerhouse (acquired by Accenture), where he spearheaded the creation of some of the Fortune 500’s most groundbreaking digital products and experiences.