Businesses of all sizes are experiencing exceptional disruption and change as they grapple with strategies to stabilize and return to growth. In this new environment, human ingenuity, innovation and adaptability will be critically important.

As a result of COVID-19, businesses’ digital transformation is accelerating more rapidly than ever before. As Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, recently observed during our earnings announcement, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”

However, as people move to distributed working and companies move essential workloads to the cloud, what isn’t instantly apparent is the growing role artificial intelligence (AI) is playing at the heart of digital transformation. For some organizations, its use had already accelerated. Others are looking at bringing forward the benefits AI can deliver.

AI is helping us discover, learn, ideate and make decisions. It’s making business operations more efficient, enhancing product and service development, and enabling new customer experiences. In industries like health care, it’s helping improve patient outcomes and save lives.

Before the pandemic, most of our customers were addressing a similar challenge: How do they ensure their people have the right skills and mindset to thrive in a world where AI is driving real business impact?

Co-workers at Mott MacDonald
Mott MacDonald personal assistant Laura Smith talks with civil apprentice Shey Sewell.

To learn more, Microsoft carried out a major international research project* focusing on AI and skills, and discovered the most successful organizations are as focused on developing the skills of their people as they are with deploying new AI-powered technology.

The business environment has changed significantly over the past few months, but the insights we gathered from our research, and the roadmap they provide, still hold true.

The core finding: “In this new environment, companies will need ingenuity to help restart their businesses,” says Azeem Azhar, AI industry expert and founder of the Exponential View. “In the context of new rules for engaging with customers, partners and stakeholders, innovative and adaptable organizations will do better. This research identifies that AI-leading firms are better positioned because they are investing more in a wide range of skills and are more focused on how new technology can augment their workers.”

The link between AI, skills and business value

The research, which spoke to 12,000 directors and employees at businesses across 20 countries, highlighted what we’ve suspected. Companies farthest along their AI journey are seeing the most value from the technology. Business leaders within AI-mature companies were predicting greater growth than leaders of companies less advanced on the AI journey.

However, this success isn’t simply about throwing more AI at the business. Instead we see that these organizations are remarkably focused on cultivating the skills of their people.

Actionable insights for business leaders

  • Benchmark your business: What does your skills mix look like in comparison to businesses at a similar stage of AI maturity, and those further ahead?
  • Confidence in the return on AI and skills is important: When assessing business outcomes and value, consider the contribution of technology, skills and culture.
  • Discover best practices for considering your approach to AI with Microsoft’s AI Business School, a free online master class designed for business leaders.

In fact, 93% of senior executives at AI-leading firms say they are actively building the skills of their workers or have plans to. The employees within these AI-leading companies corroborate this, with nearly two-thirds (64%) saying they have already benefitted from reskilling programs, and 70% indicating that they are confident their employers are preparing them for the AI world.

These percentages drop considerably across businesses that are less advanced with AI deployment – showing the importance of upskilling as companies bring more AI into their business.

Mackmyra CEO Magnus Dandanell.
Mackmyra CEO Magnus Dandanell.

What’s also interesting are the skills employers are looking for as AI becomes more prevalent. Data analysis and programming are priorities, but so too are communications and negotiations, leadership and management.

Why are we seeing successful businesses prioritizing such a wide range of skills?

Leading businesses understand that algorithms are incredibly useful at pulling insights from massive data sets and helping reduce repetitive tasks. However, they also realize that is only half of the equation. The other element is maximizing people’s ability to take AI-driven insights and use them in a creative way to solve challenges and find new opportunities. It’s about empowering people to effectively use the time that’s freed up by AI taking on more repetitive tasks. This is precious time that can be spent with customers, collaborating with colleagues and focusing on professional development.

“As a global engineering, management and development consultancy, we help figure out ways to tackle challenges that might seem daunting at first. We’re proud to have supported the UK’s COVID-19 emergency response hospitals in London, Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow, and we’ve handled other projects ranging from replacing a double-deck road with a massive tunnel in Seattle to devising ways to improve educational outcomes for girls in Sudan. The success of these endeavors rests entirely on the ingenuity and knowledge of our people. To ensure we’re capturing and effectively sharing all of this knowledge, we use an AI-enabled tool that automatically connects and organizes our content into topics, and then creates digestible content that is easily discoverable among our 16,000 employees.” – Darren Russell, chief digital officer, Mott MacDonald

The power of the augmented worker 

One of the most telling insights from the research: Within AI-leading firms, the majority of senior executives and workers agree that AI is augmenting them, helping them manage simple tasks and providing actionable, real-time insights. Almost nine out of 10 (85%) leaders, and 62% of employees, say they are AI-augmented.

When we look at how businesses use AI, it’s not surprising that 81% of AI-leading companies are using the technology to drive operational efficiencies. What is revealing is seeing how they use the technology to drive new business:

  • 57% report using AI to help their people develop new products and services – compared to 40% of less AI-mature companies
  • 45% say they are using the technology to elevate the customer experience – versus 28% among less AI-mature companies

This suggests that AI-leading firms have another insight to offer: Focus on the right skills, but also ensure that there’s a culture where AI is embraced and recognized by everyone as an opportunity for maximizing their potential.

Actionable insights for business leaders

  • Develop a holistic skilling strategy to benefit from both AI automation and augmentation: Businesses that are gaining the most strategic value from AI have more of the skills needed to build and supervise AI, but also the skills to work alongside AI. They understand how AI can augment employee skills – and are focused on building out and enhancing those skills within their workforce.
  • Actively seek out and learn from examples of how others are unlocking human ingenuity with AI: In looking at other use cases, seek to understand the mix of skills and technology that led to success – and how that evolved over time.
  • Understand where employees want to use time freed up by AI – and help channel how they reinvest it: Identify opportunities to promote learning programs to facilitate skills development, as well as give guidance on how employees can redeploy time and energy to solving, innovating and collaborating against key business priorities.

“Creating new, differentiated products takes time and effort. So being able to bring new high-quality blended whiskys to the market faster gives us an important commercial edge. So that’s why we explored using artificial intelligence to assist our master blender and chief nose officer to help accelerate identifying potential flavour combinations – including new and innovative ones that may not have been previously considered. While the whisky recipe is created by using AI, we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge, especially the fine cask selection and the human sensory part, which can never be replaced by any program. The whisky is AI-generated, but human-curated. And the proof of success is in the sipping – and being recognized with the Gold Medal awards we’ve recently received from the American Distilling Institute.” – Magnus Dandanell, CEO, Mackmyra

The emerging learn-it-all culture in the age of AI

Insights from AI-leading companies suggest that as a company deploys more AI and reskilling initiatives, a significant culture change takes place in parallel.

Leaders and employees at mature AI businesses are three times more likely to rate their firm as having a highly innovative

Encouragingly, many workers are focused on continuous learning and identifying new ways to tackle old challenges.  When we asked people where they would like to spend the time AI frees up, the top responses were:

  1. Learning
  2. Innovating and problem solving
  3. Collaborating

Actionable insights for business leaders

  • Your employees are highly motivated to learn – consider a flexible, continuous learning program: Giving employees the freedom to choose which skills they cultivate is the No. 1 way to ensure participation in learning programs. Consider how to map flexible career development paths – and help guide employees in their selections, to ensure it works for them and for the business.
  • Communicate effectively about your plans to equip employees with the key skills they need in a world of AI: This will not only help employees better understand the learning opportunities open to them, it will help enhance your employer brand and bolster employee engagement.
  • Discover ways to foster an AI-ready culture in your business and a framework to drive that change in your organization.

Further supporting the notion that we’re seeing an emergence of a learn-it-all culture across enterprises, nine out of 10 employees (92%) are keen to take part in AI reskilling initiatives.

This points to a virtuous circle emerging as companies continue their journey. Today’s AI-leading businesses have seen that having the right skills enables them to unlock more value from AI, which encourages them to extend their use of AI and, in turn, continue in up-skilling their organization.

Austin health staff
Austin Health staff members. 

“Patients are at the centre of everything we do and this means we are guided by their needs and what our staff require to provide the very best in care. To effectively adapt and flex during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve accelerated key innovations we had been developing closely with our clinicians. One example of this is a COVID-19 monitoring system for at-home patients with respiratory-related symptoms. Using AI-powered technology and its audio analytics feature, our clinicians can assess patients remotely and track their progress without needing to see them face to face. This connection, even in a time of social isolation, is giving us a window into what could be a way to provide better care in the future.” – Alan Pritchard, Austin Health’s Director, EMR and ICT Services