How AI is powering the workforce of the future

AI digital brain

The world of business has undergone drastic change over the past 30 years. Innovations in computing have helped fundamentally redesign how organisations operate, with the PC and mobile device now woven into the fabric of modern day work. You simply can't remain competitive or operate at your peak efficiency without technology.

Just as we exit one technological revolution, businesses both large and small are now preparing for the next only this time the pace of change will be far more dramatic and far more disruptive. Driving this change is the highly innovative field of artificial intelligence, an industry that is evolving so rapidly that we're only just beginning to understand its full potential.

Unprecedented pace of change

Businesses currently spend around $12.4 billion globally on AI-based technologies every year, however, over the next seven years, that figure is expected to hit $232 billion a near unprecedented 18-fold increase in expenditure.

Such dramatic change within a market will always lead to upheaval, and there are very real concerns that the pace of change will be too fast for business, leading to an inability to keep pace with competition for owners, and AI-induced automation for employees.

While it would be unwise to dismiss these concerns, if they are indeed realised such outcomes would be evidence of a failure of implementation a sign that a business catastrophically misunderstood the purpose of AI and the ways it could have supported its goals.

Small businesses in particular will experience the brunt of the change, but also benefit from the opportunity to be highly innovative, much like the start-ups that continue to disrupt markets today. Smaller firms tend to be more agile and far more accommodating for new technology, a perfect platform from which to start an AI journey.

AI is more than a product

It's important to remember that AI isn't simply a product you buy into. Much like the previous technological revolution, for it to truly excel, a fundamental shakeup to the prescribed day to day is needed.

Every business wants to be innovative within its field, but for that to happen they need to be adaptable, both inside and out, to best make use of new technology. Ultimately, they want to serve their customers in new and exciting ways - that's where true market innovation lies. That's incredibly difficult to maintain if your employees are still working from older textbooks.

Just as the computer accelerated efficiency, the goal of AI is not to replace humans in their work, but instead help your workforce be as successful as it can possibly be. When implemented properly, it can help both cut down on the menial tasks that prevent your workforce from doing the real meat of a job, and to make it easier to access the information they need.

Artificial co-workers

Every employee stands to benefit from the addition of AI in the workplace, most notably when it comes to collaborating with colleagues. In fact, in a recent Cisco study involving 2,270 workers across 10 countries, 95% of those surveyed said they believe AI could help improve work tasks such as taking notes, typing documents and emails, or scheduling meetings. Many readers will likely have a meeting lined up at some point soon. Whether it's today or tomorrow, it has likely involved some prep work to pull together everything you need, perhaps the creation of a presentation or pitch.

This is precisely where AI has the power to completely overhaul the way your employees work. AI systems are already being developed that can do all of that and more, providing a support infrastructure that would otherwise be impossible to maintain. AI is able to replicate the human assistant in the example above, only across an entire organisation in a consistent way, regardless of whether your employees are on site or working remotely.

In this respect, AI redefines our relationship with technology, turning tools into co-workers.

Yet what this example also highlights is the opportunity to either change the roles of each employee or create new ones based on the analytical power that an AI system is providing. According to data collected on the US job market in 2016, the average job role required just 4% human creativity, with the rest dominated by prescribed workflows or repetitive tasks.

AI is ultimately about unlocking this creativity giving humans the freedom to think more widely about the role they perform for the business.

Changing attitudes

It's not just the work that will change, but also how employees interact with the business itself. Findings across the board in the aforementioned Cisco report indicated that staff would be okay with machines as co-workers, while six in 10 surveyed said that they felt embracing technology will lead to more jobs. What's more, 82% of senior staff who had a human assistant said that adding a virtual assistant would further boost productivity.

This attitude towards AI is largely due to a surge in the number of connected devices being used, whether that's speakers, smart energy systems or a smartphone equipped with a virtual assistant. Of the respondents who said they would buy the latest iPhone as soon as it goes on sale, 67% expressed a desire to have a virtual assistant at work. AI is therefore no longer a field of nebulous terms and futuristic concepts people are talking to it every day, and they now want to work with it.

That's not to say that AI is a shortcut to instant success in today's market. All businesses will need to ensure their employees are ready to make the leap at the same time as the business itself. Haphazard implementation of AI is not only a substantial waste of money, it may also serve to alienate your workforce, either because they are uncomfortable using the technology, or simply don't possess the skills required to exploit it within their own roles.

It's therefore important to have a support structure in place ahead of implementation, and training programmes ready to help reskill existing staff. Much of this will be guided by the AI vendor that you choose to work with, and, in some cases, will be a natural extension to existing contracts for example, choosing Cisco's AI enabled collaboration tools makes perfect sense if you already have its networking and IT services rolled out through your business.

The next technological revolution is coming, and those businesses that thrive in it will be those understand that AI represents far more than a software rollout. With AI, businesses are free to define what the workforce of the future looks like they just have to be willing to embrace it.

Discover more technology and business insights at Cisco's dedicated hub for small and medium businesses.

Dale Walker

Dale Walker is the Managing Editor of ITPro, and its sibling sites CloudPro and ChannelPro. Dale has a keen interest in IT regulations, data protection, and cyber security. He spent a number of years reporting for ITPro from numerous domestic and international events, including IBM, Red Hat, Google, and has been a regular reporter for Microsoft's various yearly showcases, including Ignite.