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A little over four years ago, I was collaborating on a project with a colleague who happened to be working on his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence. Our client was in the online education space and looking to build a program that could examine a student’s history of learning and recommend what they should study next.
The request was straightforward. The challenge was the data the client wanted to collect was in an array of formats: There was information from their online system, but also papers and exams, all of which were graded differently. While one might have been marked with a percentage or grade, another could have two check marks or a smiley face.
As I tried to wrap my head around how we would evaluate the difference between a letter grade and an emoji, my colleague assured me AI could do that part for us.
That was when my perception of AI changed. Up until then, I thought of AI as smart algorithms, capable of taking a set of data and boiling it down to an answer. I was blown away that it had evolved to take in unstructured information and cross-reference it against sources to generate recommendations.
Fast forward to today and generative AI is sweeping through the business landscape faster than any technology we’ve seen to date — OpenAI’s ChatGPT has become the fastest-growing consumer application in history. Startups and big tech alike are leveraging it to build new business models and drastically scale operations.
Recently, I heard a speaker on a 50-city tour compare generative AI’s impact on the business world to an asteroid headed for every company that doesn’t embrace it. I like to think a little more optimistically. While there’s no denying AI is poised to drastically change business as we know it, I believe it has the potential to be the best or worst thing that happens to your company. Here’s how to make the most of the opportunity.
Resist the wait-and-see approach
A lot of the CEOs and senior leaders I work with understand AI at a high level, but they’re taking a conservative wait-and-see approach. They want more case studies or feel it’s too early to make investments in the technology.
This is a logical approach. I understand not wanting to pay the premium that early adopters incur when they invest in a new technology; not only can there be bugs and defects in early models, but you don’t benefit from new features often included in successive iterations as the tech evolves.
When it comes to generative AI, however, there’s a lot of upside to understanding how the technology can transform your business early on. From improved customer insights to more cost-effective and scalable service delivery, early adopters of AI are quickly realizing the competitive advantage it offers. A recent survey from Salesforce showed that 67% of IT leaders have prioritized generative AI for their businesses in the next 18 months.
For those who are hesitant, a great place to start is to identify one high-cost area of your business that could be made more efficient through an investment in AI. For example, we recently engaged in a project for a large enterprise that’s spending a significant portion of its marketing budget on language translation services. Leveraging AI to build the language technology in-house is a one-time investment that will cost them half of what they’re spending on outsourcing. Not only that, but the in-house solution removes internal processes and drastically improves the speed of translation.
By tackling one tangible business problem through AI, not only can you realize significant cost savings, but you can also start to understand its capabilities and visualize how it can transform other areas of your business.
Understand the opportunity cost
From Microsoft’s $13 billion bet on OpenAI to Amazon’s recent $4 billion investment in AI startup Anthropic, the race to capitalize on the business opportunities AI presents is on, and it’s not just big tech getting into the game — AI’s share of U.S. startup funding doubled in 2023, with more than 1 in 4 dollars invested in American startups going to AI-related companies.
These investments aren’t just driven by the desire for improved ROI or cost efficiency, but by the potential AI holds to disrupt competition and pave the way for entire new markets. In 2024, we’re going to see companies being built on top of generative AI, carving out segments that didn’t exist before. It’s important that CEOs and leaders understand the opportunity cost this presents to their business.
The early adopter advantage for AI is significant — companies that are investing in its capabilities to streamline operations and reduce overhead are also improving their end product or service at a fraction of the cost. Not only are these companies gaining valuable market share, but they are becoming drastically more scalable. In this sense, early adopters of AI are essentially becoming the asteroid that will hit competitors who sleep on the opportunity it presents.
Staying human in the age of AI
As with any technology that presents great promise, it also comes with great responsibility. Many of the world’s greatest companies have been built by establishing strong cultures that center around their people. As we learn how generative AI can enhance ROI, redefine industries and create new frontiers of innovation, businesses need to navigate the landscape thoughtfully.
For companies like Accenture or Ernst and Young that rely on a vast workforce of human experts, for instance, the adoption of generative AI raises intriguing questions. What if the same level of work could be achieved with significantly fewer human resources? How would this reshape industries where human expertise is the core value proposition? These are complex questions that require careful consideration as we enter this new era of business.
Generative AI has opened Pandora’s box, and while the instinct to preserve jobs is noble, we must also pivot our thinking towards a more holistic approach. Rather than clinging to tasks that AI can accomplish more efficiently, leaders may be better off exploring reskilling opportunities and identifying areas where human talent is essential.
I believe the age of AI need not be a threat to our humanity, but an opportunity to redefine our values as leaders and the purpose of our businesses. By embracing this transformation thoughtfully, we can chart a course where technology and humanity coexist, enriching the other’s strengths.
As more companies navigate this complex path toward AI transformation, I believe those who embrace the journey will scale their organizations to new heights. On the other hand, those who stay stagnant may just find themselves in “asteroid territory.”