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Board Directors: Are you ready for AI?

We know, we know. You can't move for people talking about AI. Board directors, like everyone else, are drowning in content but there’s a reason for that. AI is a hot topic and there's much to consider in terms of how it can be applied in your own business. Looking beyond the hype and the uncertainty (depending on your current stance), leaders need to be weighing up the opportunities and the threats that will inevitably arise as AI continues to develop.

We asked our Director of Solutions, Hugh Simpson, to sit down with Bill James, Chair of Transform, Automated Analytics and British Triathlon and Non-Executive Director at the British Olympic Association, to discuss the potential benefits and risks of AI that board members need to be aware of before making any decisions about how to use this technology.

Thank you, Bill, for taking time to talk about some of the issues you’re facing at board level as the use of AI is becoming more mainstream. Firstly, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be in both the tech and sports worlds. Are you finding any synergies?

I’ve worked around data and technology for many years, my passion for Transform starting in 2005 when I joined the company (originally known as CVL) as a director supporting the founder in growing the business. Over the last 18 years I’ve overseen Transform’s growth into a leading mid-market data and technology consultancy, recently acquired by Next 15 [LON:NFG].

I love working with big ideas and ambitious missions in my overlapping passions for business and sport, where data has always been a driver for high performance. Athletes rely on it to measure and improve performance and in business, we’re increasingly using data to supercharge outcomes. For me the lessons from both sport and business are interchangeable.

From your board roles in these sectors, what do you understand AI to mean and why should boards start to really pay attention to both the risks and the opportunities it presents?

Artificial intelligence [AI] and, more recently, generative AI [GenAI] are technologies that are rapidly transforming the business landscape, enabling us to identify new opportunities for revenue, to optimise our costs and to proactively manage risks.

This is not something we can ignore if we want to make sure we stay relevant and be able to capitalise on these new revenue streams. With the democratisation of access to AI technologies, board directors like me need to pay attention so that our companies are well positioned to leverage the opportunities provided.

What are some of the strategic opportunities that might result from using AI?

AI is often used as an interchangeable term to include low level intelligence such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), right up to things like neural networks that are often seen in movies. In between you’ll find an array of AI-type technologies such as computer vision, natural language processing and the hot topic of the moment, generative AI.

All these types of AI have significance and boards should be encouraging their executive teams to explore how they can improve their business platforms, build new customer and employee journeys to reduce friction points and gain greater insights from both structured and unstructured data.

Revenue opportunities include enabling businesses to create new products more quickly, launch new revenue channels, and improve customer engagement. Cost and productivity opportunities include worker augmentation, long-term talent optimisation and process improvement.

Risk mitigation, sustainability and customer insights can also be seen as opportunities.

There’s bound to be some conflict at board level isn’t there? CEO and sales/commercial teams are more likely to jump at the opportunity to use AI whilst those execs focused on risk and audit will side with the CFO to ask how much it’s all going to cost. What’s the best way to approach this?

The costs for AI will range from negligible to many millions, depending on the use case, scale and requirements of the company.

We’ve seen companies build complex NLP powered customer service agents for as little as £50,000 up to a few hundred thousand pounds. More complex computer vision research projects such as the EU’s robotics and automation for efficient meat processing project has cost over €7.7mil.

You don’t need to spend millions to derive significant business value.

RPA is a relatively inexpensive technology that can help build more cognitive workflows with a definable ROI. Machine learning and advanced data analytics are precursors to advanced AI that mean larger businesses with enriched datasets can build customised, proprietary models.

We’ve alluded to it a few times, but obviously data is super important to power AI. What’s the state of most IT teams when it comes to data?

Let’s be clear. Data is not just for the IT team, it’s the responsibility of the entire business.

From my experience, most businesses aren’t ready for AI. Mainly because their data quality isn’t up to scratch, and they don’t have the necessary governance in place. But also because they often don’t have the right technology needed for high velocity or unstructured data.

Step one when it comes to preparing for AI is to get the executive team to align the business and data strategy.

At a time where businesses generate and collect massive amounts of data, it’s imperative that they harness the power of this data to drive informed decision-making, gain a competitive edge and achieve strategic business goals.

The data strategy should look first at the use cases that drive the business. Then at the data quality and governance. Followed by the technology stack. And finally, but most importantly, the human side of AI, its people. From there, you can take those use cases and start to experiment with data: be agile about it and solve real problems whilst accepting that you’ll make some mistakes along the way but will learn rapidly as you do.

Boards will still face the challenge of the investment case though. AI isn’t something you can buy out of a box and use traditional ROI calculations with.

You make it sound easy, but is it really that easy? What risks should boards be considering when they engage with their business about AI?

Is it really that easy? Yes and no. Experimenting with AI can be somewhat de-risked by engaging with suitable partners, however you’re right, there are some significant risks.

These include data privacy, data security and the potential for AI-generated content to be manipulated or used for malicious purposes.

Boards should also make sure their executive teams are taking steps to ensure AI is used ethically and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.

Thanks again for your time today, Bill. Do you have any final thoughts for your fellow board members?

AI is a transformative technology that can provide significant opportunities for revenue growth and cost savings, but also for risk management.

Think about a current project you’re working on and ask yourself how you might use AI to best go about that and what oversight can you help your executive team with to make sure the risks are managed?

However, remember the old adage: garbage in, garbage out? If the data you collect and use is poor quality, the insights that you see on the other side won’t be much better.

Boards need to be aware that there’ll likely be a need for some investment in making sure your data is ready. By doing so, they’ll be helping their companies position themselves as sector leaders and ensure they’re well positioned to compete in the increasingly AI-driven business landscape.


Are you ready for AI?

Building the right foundations to unlock potential

At our next leadership breakfast, we’ll be hosting a panel discussion to look beyond the hype and uncertainty surrounding AI and exploring how it can help leaders and businesses to optimise, grow and unlock value.

The convergence of exponential technologies like RPA, AI and blockchain has sparked a revolution, reshaping core business processes and keeping us in a continual state of transformation. It’s causing leaders to ask questions like:

  • How do we unpack AI and what does it mean for our business?

  • What’s needed to remain competitive and drag our old systems into the new era?

  • Our CEO or Board want us to start doing AI but where do we start?

Our experience of working with organisations to tackle issues like these means we’re well placed to share the secret sauce behind leveraging your data to create opportunity. Because without this how can you create new value and gain a competitive edge to strike back against digital disruptors?

Leading the panel will be our Director of Solutions, Hugh Simpson, a former VP of Data & AI for a leading global outsourcing firm and Product Consultant for reactive machine and limited memory solutions.

Our panel of experts will showcase real-world examples from their organisations including how they’re already harnessing scale, data, skills, and channel power to thrive in this new era.

  • Hugh Simpson, Director of Solutions at Transform

  • Ange Johnson de Wet, Head of Engineering at NatWest

  • Premal Desai, Head of Data & AI at The Gym Group

In an open and transparent discussion (held under Chatham House rules) we’ll unpack how to align your business and data strategy, view your business as a platform, leverage new technology to create cognitive workflows and build humanity into your data and AI.

If you’d like to be part of this transformational conversation, held at BFI Southbank, email Spaces are limited but we'll do our best to find a space for you!

What: Are you ready for AI?

When: 5th July 2023

Where: BFI, Southbank, London

Time: 08:45-10:45 (Panel discussion runs from 09:15-10:15)

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