How much of your time is actually spent on productive pursuits? Probably a lot less than you think. A recent Singlehop survey of IT pros revealed that those professionals spent only 36 percent of their average workweek on new projects and proactive tasks. That means they likely spend 64 percent of that same workweek on ongoing projects and routine functions.
Wasting time like this isn’t a problem unique to IT pros: Even at the C-suite level, according to a McKinsey report, 20 percent of the average CEO’s time is spent on tasks that could be classified as ordinary to the point of automatic -- jobs like status report reviews and staff assignments.
For decades, we have looked forward to a future where artificial intelligence handled these kinds of routine tasks for us. McKinsey estimates say that only 5 percent of jobs could be handled entirely by AI, but as many as 60 percent of today's professional categories could outsource up to 30 percent of their workload to AI.
That statistic reflects an exciting prospect for small-to-mid-sized businesses trying to stretch their resources as far as possible. But automating routine tasks is just part of what AI can do in a business setting. Simply letting machines handle the most basic jobs could have a powerful effect on efficiency, output and even morale. And those are all great results.
But the potential for transformation extends much further.
Inefficiency’s newest enemy
AI is designed to cure efficiency. Already, the AI technology that's out there can understand and learn from basic tasks to such an extent that it can find ways to eliminate those tasks.
For instance, AI can already implement human speech and text in a company's mailroom or call center to handle simple information-sharing tasks that used to fall on human representatives. At present, some 10,000 developers are working on chatbots for Facebook Messenger alone.
A variation on those same capabilities allows machines to scan, identify and analyze physical objects. Expertise that used to be exclusive to professionals, such as that of engineers and technicians, can now be optimized through the capabilities of machine learning.
Finally, on the grandest scale, AI can be used to identify complex patterns that inform business intelligence, marketing, operations, logistics and everything else at the foundation of a company. It’s not a stretch to imagine a point in the near future where AI will be at the very core of how businesses operate.
AI, then, has an obvious appeal for entrepreneurs. But company executives worry that AI implementation on any scale will be too expensive, complex and disruptive to reap any real value -- and that's a valid concern but also one that underscores the need for companies to embrace AI responsibly.
Jumping the AI hurdle
Entrepreneurs need to welcome AI into their organizations in a way that’s measured and thoughtful. If you look at everything through an AI lens, it’s easy to assume every problem needs an AI solution, but that is hardly the case. Executives must look at their operations holistically and determine where AI can bring the most value.
Here are three questions that will help you determine how AI can best serve your business:
1. “What problems can I rule out?” Again, AI isn’t the magical answer to all of a company’s problems. At least in its current form, AI is not a form of consciousness -- it does not have the mental flexibility and common sense that are essential to human decision-making. Rather, it’s a form of soft intelligence. While it can learn on a basic level, AI doesn’t rise to the level of human intelligence or pose a meaningful threat to human workers. Once you understand what you can’t solve with AI, you’ll see just what you can.
Take think tank Jigsaw, for example. The Google-affiliated organization is helping police offensive speech on the internet by cracking down on threatening remarks and slurs in websites’ comment sections. As capable as Jigsaw is, it’s not intelligent enough to recognize the context behind conversation and might make inaccurate decisions. That said, however, Jigsaw can recognize and act on the most serious and toxic comments and has the potential to grow these abilities in the future.
2. “What processes can be made more efficient?” Unlike the largest tech companies, you do not have to make eight-figure investments in AI. In fact, that kind of financial enthusiasm might be your worst enemy. Rather than try to integrate AI into all your processes, find the ones where it can have the biggest, fastest and most seamless effect, saving you the most time.
Think of your day-to-day and week-to-week schedules: What tasks feel repetitive or even mind-numbing? Which do you wish you could get off your plate? There’s a good chance AI can relieve you of them.
For instance, Salesforce’s AI platform, Einstein, automates the company’s data entry for customers -- a task that used to be done by human employees. Einstein’s general manager told Techcrunch that the goal here is to save employees time, so they can focus on “what really matters” in their roles.
3. “How will artificial intelligence affect my ROI?” Even after understanding AI’s potential to streamline your operations, you have to consider your bottom line. Some technologies may lead to lots of improvements but still increase complexity. And that comes with higher costs. The result: Even if your processes become more efficient, you’re losing money.
Other AI-based changes may be less transformative but much easier to implement and operate. In that case, you'll be making a smaller improvement overall, but seeing less time wasted.
Even these small-scale implementations can create a big effect. For example, Persado, a cognitive content software firm, has developed algorithms that analyze clients’ customer-facing communication through AI. Analyzing and refining something as seemingly small as a subject line has created dramatic lifts in the company's client email marketing impressions.
AI is already changing the way companies operate. And advances in technology make it a tool that's already available to organizations in nearly every industry and at every stage of growth. Thinking critically about how this tool can serve you will put AI well within your reach.