Adopting AI and automation should be considered as a strategy to transform operational processes, and with it improve the employee experience and enhance safety, writes Ian Hulme.
A longstanding challenge for New Zealand is to find ways to increase productivity without simply relying on people working longer hours.
The Productivity Commission said in a May 2021 report that productivity performance in 2019-20 was weak, with almost half of GDP growth accounted for by increases in labour input, and firms are not making the most of advanced technologies.
Creating more intuitive working environments using AI and automation will improve productivity by arming employees with both the tools and knowledge to work smarter.
The potential advantages to managers are substantial too, improving the overall employee experience, enhancing safety and expanding opportunities for upskilling.
The ongoing evolution of AI
Until recently, the primary benefit of technology has been to provide efficiency gains which can be a blunt goal.
Now, taking recruitment as an example, AI helps identify the right people faster by assessing skill match for roles, but also predicting the likelihood of future success, and estimating the expected time to fill any given role. Designing the AI to look at skills, not just credentials, identifies less conventional candidates who have high potential, ensuring they are considered.
AI-powered automation, often in the form of chatbots, can process repetitive, lower value tasks and free up employees to do more by providing the right information at the right time.
This allows managers to lead conversations with staff, asking: “If I could use my time differently, or if I could focus on more ‘valuable work,’ what would I do?”
Vodafone shows this augmentation in action, recently developing an AI-driven data analytics model with IBM with the goal of reducing mobile phone service interruptions, improving reliability and the customer experience.
This first-of-its-kind transformation of the telco’s Network Operations Centre produced detailed traffic predictions, something that engineers were not previously able to do efficiently, given the mobile network’s high volume of queries.
Engineers were then able to focus on working with customers to solve the more complex problems.
Within IBM, our HR team has infused AI into key workflows, better matching employees with career opportunities.
As a result of our Watson Candidate Assist Tool, job seekers apply for IBM open positions at three times the rate of industry average or competitor job sites.
Managers gain support from AI with salary guidance and reducing manual tasks in benefits administration and payroll through robotic process automation.
AI is designed to be swift and efficient for some functions, more nuanced and empathetic for others.
At a large Australasian employer, an IBM Watson chatbot was developed using the terms that employees were most frequently typing into their Workday knowledge base.
The system prompts employees for some of the things they might be interested in asking – focusing their enquiries and guiding users through often complex HR policies, such as the purchase-leave programme that lets staff top up their normal leave entitlement.
Improving worker safety
The scope of AI extends beyond the conventional office space, to improve safety for workers in hazardous or dirty jobs.
AI can help organisations monitor and maintain their assets, and predict where failures are more likely to occur, eliminating the need to send people into potentially dangerous places when there aren’t actually any issues to be fixed. The rapid improvement in visual inspection in the last few years is due the ease-of-use, accuracy, and speed with which organisations can train and develop their own AI models.
Visual inspection AI can analyse image data gathered by cameras pointed at assets or drones and help detect problems. AI is also capable of analysing system and equipment failures, comparing it against records of hundreds of asset histories, and proposing suitable fixes.
In spotting opportunities to automate ask yourself:
• What internal services would be better if they were available 24/7?
• What tasks would be improved if done at scale and greater consistency?
• What would be possible if we leveraged broader expertise to see beyond our current limits?
AI offers dynamic solutions to all of these notions.
Innovation and technological change are critical to lifting productivity and growing New Zealand’s economic wealth. Adopting AI and automation should be considered as a strategy to transform operational processes, and with it improve the employee experience and enhance safety.
Five steps to deploying AI
Step 1: Start with a business case: Choose a business problem that can be resolved with improved insight, information, and data. Specify the minimum viable product (MVP) and test its viability quickly, even if on a small scale.
Step 2: Decide whether to buy or build: If you decide to build your own solution, a good way to start is to solicit ideas from the workforce and then bring the users of the apps into the design process.
Step 3: Identify the skills you have and need: The skills required include design, development, and implementation.
Step 4: Implement the MVP: The faster you deploy your MVP, the sooner you can deliver the next improved iteration. Ideally all projects, irrespective of complexity, will show benefits within six to 12 months.
Step 5: Roll out company-wide: Tie the MVP to revenue increases or cost savings in order to gauge its success.
Ian Hulme is a partner at IBM Business Consulting.