Artificial intelligence

CEOs must train their workforces to seize AI-driven growth

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 3:40pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 4:18pm

Chief executives in Hong Kong and mainland China need to take immediate steps to pivot their workforces and equip them to work with intelligent technologies.

A new Accenture Strategy report entitled “Reworking the Revolution: Are you ready to compete as intelligent technology meets human ingenuity to create the future workforce?”, and issued last week at Davos, estimates that if businesses invest in artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine collaboration at the same rate as top-performing companies, they could boost revenues by 38 per cent by 2022 and raise employment levels by 10 per cent. Collectively, this would lift profits by US$4.8 trillion globally over the same period.

For the average S&P 500 company, this equates to US$7.5 billion of revenues and a US$880 million lift in profitability.

Artificial intelligence will change the job market and Hong Kong isn’t ready

The study surveyed about 14,000 workers across different skill levels and generations – including 1,011 from China. Additionally, 1,201 senior executives – 101 of them from China – were surveyed between September and November last year from a variety of industries.

It is clear that human-machine collaboration drives efficiency as well as growth through new customer experiences. For example, one online clothing retailer’s AI is helping its stylists learn more about customers’ preferences so that they can offer a unique and highly personalised service. And a sports shoe brand has set a new bar in customisation and speed-to-market by aligning highly skilled tailors and process engineers with intelligent robots to design and manufacture in local markets.

Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, already leads the way in using AI to improve sales among China’s 460 million online shoppers. For Singles’ Day it welcomed high-street retailers who showcased “cloud-shelves” for customers to shop for products not available on the physical store’s shelves, and some of its retailers used virtual fitting rooms to let customers try on clothes.

The use of intelligent robots in manufacturing is an obvious potential growth area for China, which already publicly recognised this in 2015 when it launched “Made in China 2025” as part of a road map for the country’s latest industrial modernisation. The strategy focuses on developing an advanced manufacturing sector through innovation-driven development and applying smart, eco-friendly technologies.

The study shows that leaders and workers are optimistic about the potential of AI to improve business results and work experiences. Half of the executives surveyed said they expect AI will be used to a large extent to assist in tasks in their organisations in the next three years. And 58 per cent of the Chinese senior executives surveyed expect intelligent technologies to result in a net gain in jobs for their companies in the next three years.

Crucially, Chinese workers understand that learning how to work with AI is important. Eighty per cent of them said it is important to develop the skills to work with intelligent machines.

Assess tasks, not jobs. Then allocate tasks to machines and people, balancing the need to automate work and to elevate people’s capabilities

Yet a disconnect between workers’ embrace of AI and their employers’ efforts to prepare them puts potential growth at risk. Senior executives in China say only 23 per cent of the workforce is ready to work with AI but only 1 per cent say their organisation plans to significantly increase its investment in retraining their workers in the next three years.

That is a challenge – to get results, companies need to invest in their people. The only way people can work with AI is if they are trained to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that businesses up their commitment to what we call “applied intelligence”, which is the ability to rapidly implement intelligent technology and human ingenuity across all parts of their core business to secure this growth.

Here’s what China businesses need to do:

Reimagine work by reconfiguring it from the bottom up. Assess tasks, not jobs. Then allocate tasks to machines and people, balancing the need to automate work and to elevate people’s capabilities.

Pivot the workforce to areas that unlock new forms of value. Go beyond process efficiencies and prepare the workforce to create new customer experiences. Fuel new growth models by reinvesting the savings derived from automation into the future workforce. Foster a new leadership DNA that underpins the mindset, acumen and agility required to seize longer-term, transformational opportunities.

Scale up “new skilling”. Measure the workforce’s level of skills and willingness to learn to work with AI. Using digital platforms, target programmes at these different segments of the workforce and personalise them to improve new skills adoption.

Companies in China have an opportunity to improve efficiency and employee effectiveness, satisfy customer needs and sell more, but they need to embrace AI and invest in their workforce.

Wei Zhu is chairman of Accenture Greater China