AI in Traditional Organisations: Today’s Realities
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In this Insight, guest author Anirban Mukherjee lists out the key challenges of AI adoption in traditional organisations – and how best to mitigate these challenges. “I am by no means suggesting that traditional companies avoid or delay adopting AI. That would be akin to asking a factory to keep using only steam as power, even as electrification came in during early 20th century! But organisations need to have a pragmatic strategy around what will undoubtedly be a big, but necessary, transition.”

Anirban Mukherjee, Associate Partner, Ernst & Young

After years of evangelising digital adoption, I have more of a nuanced stance today – supporting a prudent strategy, especially where the organisation’s internal capabilities/technology maturity is in question. I still see many traditional organisations burning budgets in AI adoption programs with low success rates, simply because of poor choices driven by misplaced expectations. Without going into the obvious reasons for over-exuberance (media-hype, mis-selling, FOMO, irrational valuations – the list goes on), here are few patterns that can be detected in those organisations that have succeeded getting value – and gloriously so!

Data-driven decision-making is a cultural change. Most traditional organisations have a point person/role accountable for any important decision, whose “neck is on the line”. For these organisations to change over to trusting AI decisions (with its characteristic opacity, and stochastic nature of recommendations) is often a leap too far.

Work on your change management, but more crucially, strategically choose business/process decision points (aka use-cases) to acceptably AI-enable.

Technical choice of ML modeling needs business judgement too. The more flexible non-linear models that increase prediction accuracy, invariably suffer from lower interpretability – and may be a poor choice in many business contexts. Depending upon business data volumes and accuracy, model bias-variance tradeoffs need to be made. Assessing model accuracy and its thresholds (false-positive-false-negative trade-offs) are similarly nuanced. All this implies that organisation’s domain knowledge needs to merge well with data science design. A pragmatic approach would be to not try to be cutting-edge.

Look to use proven foundational model-platforms such as those for NLP, visual analytics for first use cases. Also note that not every problem needs AI; a lot can be sorted through traditional programming (“if-then automation”) and should be. The dirty secret of the industry is that the power of a lot of products marketed as “AI-powered” is mostly traditional logic, under the hood!

In getting results from AI, most often “better data trumps better models”. Practically, this means that organisations need to spend more on data engineering effort, than on data science effort. The CDO/CIO organisation needs to build the right balance of data competencies and tools.

Get the data readiness programs started – yesterday! While the focus of data scientists is often on training an AI model, deployment of the trained model online is a whole other level of technical challenge (particularly when it comes to IT-OT and real-time integrations).

It takes time to adopt AI in traditional organisations. Building up training data and model accuracy is a slow process. Organisational changes take time – and then you have to add considerations such as data standardisation; hygiene and integration programs; and the new attention required to build capabilities in AIOps, AI adoption and governance.

Typically plan for 3 years – monitor progress and steer every 6 months. Be ready to kill “zombie” projects along the way. Train the executive team – not to code, but to understand the technology’s capabilities and limitations. This will ensure better informed buyers/consumers and help drive adoption within the organisation.

I am by no means suggesting that traditional companies avoid or delay adopting AI. That would be akin to asking a factory to keep using only steam as power, even as electrification came in during early 20th century! But organisations need to have a pragmatic strategy around what will undoubtedly be a big, but necessary, transition.

These opinions are personal (and may change with time), but definitely informed through a decade of involvement in such journeys. It is not too early for any organisation to start – results are beginning to show for those who started earlier, and we know what they got right (and wrong).

I would love to hear your views, or even engage with you on your journey!

The views and opinions mentioned in the article are personal.

Anirban Mukherjee has more than 25 years of experience in operations excellence and technology consulting across the globe, having led transformations in Energy, Engineering, and Automotive majors. Over the last decade, he has focused on Smart Manufacturing/Industry 4.0 solutions that integrate cutting-edge digital into existing operations.

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