Why real AI innovation is centred around people

2020 was a year of rapid transformation. The advent of Covid-19 has accelerated many of the trends we have seen in recent years. This is especially true of AI and machine learning – there’s been an almost 25% year-on-year increase in business use of AI in response to the pandemic, with 63% of executives agreeing it has led to revenue increases. In the finance function especially, automation has helped to streamline processes and save professionals’ precious time. Yet AI isn’t the only emerging technology driving digital innovation.

AI technologies are of course integral to any digital transformation strategy – whether it’s basic robotic process automation or natural language processing capabilities. But AI alone won’t bring success – it needs to be in support of a wider data integration and consolidation programme. Only then will payroll and accounting, HR, and customer relationship management all benefit from innovation at the operational level.

In the next year, the real innovation will happen around people. The necessity of remote working has stripped away many of the interpersonal reactions we took for granted – such as going to a colleague’s desk to ask a question, or meeting a customer face-to-face. Therefore, technology investment will be centered around the people – the employees and customers – who are integral to business success. In a remote age, new technologies will come into play that help workers stay happy, healthy, and productive, and which deliver stronger customer experiences.

Don’t forget about the Cloud

AI often grabs the headlines, but the Cloud was the real hero of business operations this year. As intermittent lockdowns persist into the foreseeable future, it’s clear that organisations will only become more cloud-based to enable employees to work remotely and to keep customer channels open.

Yet a siloed cloud-based business has its drawbacks. A lack of integration between different departments and data environments continues to prevent businesses from reaching their potential. Decisions are delayed as employees scramble to find the data they need for a more independent style of working. Many employees are also struggling to adapt to the remote working environment. Cut off from their colleagues, employees can feel unsupported and overwhelmed – with little scope for HR to step in to help. Indeed, 69% of employees are reporting symptoms of burnout from working remotely. Without a solution, productivity, morale and collaboration will continue to suffer.

Digital business also leads to heightened customer demands. Clients are becoming accustomed to the convenient, instantaneous nature of digital services. Being competitive now is all about providing an engaging one-to-one customer experience – personalised, smart and fast – despite the lack of in-person interaction. To stand out, you need to be ambitious with your customer experience – and that means having unparalleled customer insight.

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Master the back office to win the front office

As a priority then, businesses need to innovate around integration – ensuring employees have access to data from across the business as well as each other. Cloud-based collaboration tools, like Zoom and Teams, are becoming increasingly embedded into day-to-day processes. Yet more has to be done to ensure they are connected with the other parts of the business. When a payroll professional can quickly find employee data, or a people manager can access HR systems from their collaboration platform of choice, the business will enjoy real gains in efficiency.

Integrating data environments and applications is only the beginning. To become truly agile, a business needs to invest in process orchestration. ERP and enterprise management solutions enable the control of the entire business, from supply chain to sales and people management. They provide end-to-end solutions that offer a complete overview of operations. When all employees have access to this system, they are freed from organisational complexity, can make decisions with confidence and, most importantly, focus on their work.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but organisations should strive for a fully integrated and intelligent infrastructure that delivers data whenever the customer or employee needs it. An integrated data layer can then provide the foundation for smart, AI-powered automated systems that can scale rapidly to customer requirements and demands. This is a system that enhances how people work. Putting data and the power of decision-making in the hands of employees and the customer.

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People, not technology, fuels innovation

Those who innovate their business operating model, and become more connected, agile and responsive will be the ones to thrive in the digital-first and digital-only era. AI solutions will of course play a powerful role in the future of business, but they need a strong foundation of connected data and operations to meet their full potential. Technology alone doesn’t transform a business; people empowered by data and technology do. The purpose of technology is to make processes and barriers invisible, enabling the business to focus on what’s most important.

Written by Susana Duran, vice-president of engineering – emerging tech & mobile at Sage

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