Filling the missing middle: Practical steps towards AI-enhanced operations

By April 18, 2018 April 27th, 2019

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlights an emerging approach to business transformation. Instead of trying to displace their human workforce and replace it with faster, cheaper AI equivalents, a handful of leading businesses have chosen to use AI to augment the capabilities of their human personnel. It’s like giving their employees superpowers that let them comprehend and process incredibly large volumes of digital information with breathtaking speed and precision.

However, not many companies have caught on to this hybrid approach, which is why the WSJ article calls it the “missing middle” – somewhere between manual paper-pushing and fully automatic, AI-driven operations. Whether the reason behind slow adoption is a fear of being replaced by a machine, or just some form of operational inertia, the emergence of commercially viable AI is an opportunity for business leaders to leap ahead of their competition by becoming early adopters. Over time, your team will begin to understand that commercial AI solutions aren’t their replacements – they’re more like power tools for knowledge work.

The author outlines five key principles for successful AI augmentation:

  1. Adopt a hybrid mindset to help reinvent traditional processes so they take advantage of AI agility.
  2. Continually experiment with the way your business operates.
  3. Consider the ethical and legal implications of using AI.
  4. Accumulate and prepare extensive, varied, and unbiased data sources to train AI.
  5. Develop skills required to effectively train and collaborate with AI.

These five principles are excellent jumping-off points for devising an AI augmentation strategy, and they involve a mix of creativity, business acumen, and technical expertise.

Principle 1 certainly benefits from an understanding of what currently available AI solutions can accomplish, but absolutely requires insight into viable use cases for a particular organization. Some business leaders might already possess this powerful combination of technical and operational awareness, but it’s much more convenient to look for a technically competent implementation partner with industry-specific experience. They’ll be able to point out business processes that will yield the biggest ROI after deploying AI to enhance worker productivity. Look for a partner that’s done it for other businesses in your industry – if they’ve deployed AI for them, you know they can do the same for you.

Principle 2 suggests frequently changing, fluid business operations. That requires a flexible solution that can be modified or reconfigured without investing a lot of time or money. Consider looking into robotic process automation (RPA), which, unlike traditional business process automation techniques, quickly inserts AI agents (commonly called “bots”) into your existing processes, and allows business users to retrain them without requiring extensive programming experience. Since exploring changes doesn’t require you to engage a software development team, RPA solutions are perfect for encouraging experimentation with new business processes.

A solid grasp on legal and ethical challenges is the focus of principle 3. Once again, unless your organization has its own legal team that is well-versed in automation and AI, hiring an experienced technology consulting firm is the most sensible approach. Having gone through multiple successful implementations, a seasoned technology partner can help you identify and avoid tech-centric legal pitfalls in the initial planning phase, long before any software is actually deployed.

A unified business management solution can help you realize principle 4 with minimal effort. If you have a full-featured, extensible ERP platform like Microsoft Dynamics 365, you can integrate it with your AI agents and give them access to as much live business information as they need. In order to ensure that the data you’re using to train your bots isn’t skewed or biased, choose a technology partner that is experienced in delivering Big Data solutions.

The importance of principle 5 cannot be overstated. No matter how sophisticated an AI augmentation solution you choose to deploy, it will be designed to work alongside your human workers. The better trained and more comfortable they are working with bots, the more successful your digitally enhanced operations will be. There are two components to achieving this result: extensive hands-on training for your staff, and a user-friendly AI solution that makes your bots less intimidating to work with. You will need an open, accessible implementation partner that provides ongoing training and support for your employees, and a user-configurable RPA deployment that replaces frighteningly complex pages of code with easy-to-understand, drag-and-drop controls.

If you read the original WSJ article and were wondering how your business might implement something as new and niche as AI, take heart: technology partners like Visionet Systems can deploy AI augmentation solutions in just a few weeks, instead of the months and years that traditional automation used to take. As detailed above, adopting the five principles of AI augmentation are absolutely achievable for companies in any industry, and we’re here to help. Contact Visionet Systems for a complimentary consultation session, and discover how AI can boost productivity by giving your staff digital superpowers.