South African business prepares for AI-based collaboration

By Angela Chandy (Dark Fibre Web), published by ITWeb on 29th August 2018

The latest Strategy Analytics Global Mobile Workforce Forecast Update predicts the mobile workforce will be 1.87 billion strong by 2022, over 40% of the world’s total number of workers. That is close to 2 billion people who will need to be constantly connected to their colleagues and teams, with real-time, on-demand access to the same systems they would have access to in the office, and with no interruption to their workflow.

Mobility isn’t the only reason why organisations are factoring in collaboration to their digital transformation strategy. Apart from reducing inefficient e-mail trails and enabling co-authoring and co-editing of documents, IT departments also want to streamline other aspects of work for onsite teams. Seamlessly sharing best practices and exchanging expertise across departments and organisations have also been made possible by the various emerging innovations in online collaboration.

According to a Dimension Data’s South Africa Digital Workplace 2017 report, increased productivity and competitiveness, along with growing revenues and accelerated decision-making, are some of the main goals that businesses hope to achieve through their digital workplace strategies.

Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of collaboration is innovation. Working with and exchanging ideas with people from diverse backgrounds and skills can fill gaps in information and competencies and support the development of a richer knowledge base. It can boost the ability to not only find new solutions to problems, but also improve current processes and ways of doing things.

Add to this systems that enable better and smoother collaboration, and you dramatically enhance the benefits. These technologies can break the barriers of distance and eliminate time lags that would otherwise have a negative impact on innovative sparks.

“Collaboration technologies are numerous. At the most basic level, they include online chat and meeting platforms as well as document and file sharing. But technology is also enhancing work life by enabling richer ways of sharing skills and ideas and by assigning mundane tasks to intelligent systems such as virtual assistants (VAs),” says Mmakgosi Mosupi, Chief Information Officer at DFA.

While social and online collaboration and communication platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Yammer, and SharePoint continue to gain ground in the modern office, new and emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning, and deep learning are also making inroads.

And we’re not talking here about machines merely replacing human workers; by all indications, humans working together with machines is the next great frontier in collaboration. An article in the Harvard Business Review titled: ‘Collaborative Intelligence: Humans and AI are Joining Forces’, cites research to support the assertion that “firms achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together” (compared to when the machines completely replace humans or humans work without the aid of machines). If humans collaborating with humans can produce such levels of innovation, you can only imagine the potential that lies in this kind of partnership.

The 2017 Accenture report: “Artificial intelligence: Is South Africa ready?” found close to 80% of South African executives acknowledge the benefits of AI to their business. This growing demand is evidenced by a growing number of AI solutions providers with an ever-increasing South African customer base.

CLEVVA, a leading AI technology provider, says that, although South African business is catching up quickly, there are very limited applications in full production. “This is largely due to the state of organisational data and the limited integration across legacy systems, and impacts the accuracy of logic prediction. However, this is steadily being resolved, so we should see a significant increase in adoption over the next five to 10 years,” says CLEVVA co-CEO and co-founder Ryan Falkenberg.

He adds there is, however, an exciting opportunity to accelerate the adoption of AI by starting with prescriptive logic, the logic that is defined by specified product, policy and procedural rules and which is largely sitting in a few experts’ heads. “We currently describe this logic in documents and process flows, and then hope staff will be able to read, interpret and apply it accurately in practice. This seldom happens because it lacks context,” he says. “With new AI technologies, we can now model this contextual logic using data tables, not decision-trees. The result is that companies can now start their AI journey by first building a digital expert that replicates known logic, before looking at digital experts that are powered by predictive logic.”

Falkenberg gives examples of how local companies are embracing this foundational form of digital intelligence to kick-start their digital journey. A local financial services company has built a digital financial expert to guide their sales teams through effective, needs-based sales conversations, a digital service expert to guide call centre agents through different inbound client queries, and a digital HR expert to ensure staff make the right policy and procedure decisions, with detailed records to prove it.

A petroleum company has built a digital technical expert to help technical service staff work out the root cause of a technical problem and identify the relevant solution, while a leading flooring company has built a flooring expert to guide staff and clients through the complex selection and installation of their technical products.

“A large South African telco has built a digital expert to guide over 1 500 call centre agents through every known inbound call without them having to know any of the details. The next step is to integrate Web and chatbot self-service to this logic to offer customers a consistent, compliant experience across every touch point.”

The potential uses are almost endless; but Mosupi stresses that one of the main areas that IT departments should be looking to bolster is connectivity. “Future adoption of these technologies will not be possible without the necessary backbone infrastructure that will support low-latency, high-speed connectivity.”

Falkenberg agrees: “Connectivity is central to the technology ecosystem that enables most AI, given that the logic is based on massive inflows of data.”

Bea Chinner from AI solutions provider Xineoh says that competition is also a big motivator for adoption. “Sectors where the competition is fierce are really leading the trend. Nothing motivates a business to implement the newest technologies like knowing that their competitors are doing it.” She adds that the company has only recently started to explore working in the South African market. “Most of our past work was for international clients, but we are expecting to see massive growth in local adoption.”

Mosupi says businesses need to give a great deal of attention to the tools that will enable technology now and in the future. This will not only enable them to maintain and increase innovation, but also introduce the kind of agility and efficiency that will secure their future.

“Key to bringing these innovations to life is connectivity, both to platforms and well as ‘things’ that provide the data for AI driven analytics and business processes. DFA, through its extensive open access fibre network as well as the IOT network delivered by its subsidiary, Sqwidnet, ensures that these platform, device and application ecosystems are connected in a scalable, secure and cost-efficient manner.”

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