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Tackling the UK’s productivity puzzle: how AI can accelerate competitive advantage

It’s an unprecedented time for organisations across the UK. Amidst ongoing political and economic uncertainty, the need to boost productivity and remain competitive is more pressing than ever before. Yet, despite remaining top of C-Suite agendas, recent figures from the ONS reveal the UK is currently suffering the worst drop in productivity levels in five years, hammering home the extent of the nation’s “productivity puzzle”.

While experts disagree on exactly why UK productivity has flatlined, they agree, along with the UK government and technology companies like ourselves, that artificial intelligence (AI) will prove essential in piecing together this puzzle.

Indeed, the link between AI and increased business productivity is well known, with the latest forecasts from McKinsey Global suggesting the technology will add $13 trillion to global economic activity by 2030. Likewise, Microsoft’s latest research report - Accelerating competitive advantage with AI” - reveals that organisations already using AI are outperforming the competition by 11.5% on factors including productivity, profitability and business outcomes.

In today’s challenging socio-economic climate, with many UK businesses unsure of what’s around the corner, imagine what an 11.5% increase to business bottom line could deliver. From automating mundane tasks to analysing billions of data points to provide real-time, actionable insights, AI offers a huge boost to business productivity and can help to ensure people are focused on more meaningful work.

12 months ago, we encouraged organisations to get going with AI and to start experimenting with it to reap its rewards. Today, in view of the clear link between full deployment of AI and gaining a competitive edge, it’s now time for all UK organisations to get serious with AI.

From positive steps to clear strides:

Despite testing times for UK businesses, many organisations are realising AI’s potential to transform business operations. Promisingly, more than half (54%) of UK organisations are now using AI to some degree. Analytics and big data technologies top the list of AI technologies companies are using at 38%, followed by automation (32%), RPA (27%) and machine learning (25%).

As encouraging as this progress with AI is, it doesn’t mean that adoption is happening quickly or expansively enough. Indeed, only 24% of UK organisations appear to be really thinking through their approach to AI. More alarmingly, over a third of British businesses using AI don’t seem to have a strategy at all.

Put simply, positive steps shouldn’t be mistaken for giant strides. At Microsoft, we’re seeing a widening gap forming between those organisations scaling AI across their organisation (8%) and those who remain stuck in the experimentation phase (48%).

Knowing where to start is key. For any UK organisation this involves being crystal clear on the business problem you’re trying to solve, having realistic expectations on what AI can do (and what it can’t), along with the resources required to introduce, manage and measure how successful it is.

Building in this time to identify and scope the problem and put the right strategy in place is essential to success.

Get your data in order:

Equally essential is getting your data house in order – something which is true for all UK sectors. Implementing a strong data strategy is critical component if organisations want to reap the rewards that AI offers. According to our research, this is something that all advanced AI organisations seem to have in place, as well as the tools and capabilities needed to deliver it.

UK leaders are also recognising the importance of this, with 43% agreeing that preparing usable data represents the biggest challenge to scaling AI. As the gap between advanced AI organisations and those stuck in the experimentation phase grows, tackling this challenge will be critical.

It’s not enough to optimise for performance:

However, moving from the 48% (those experimenting with AI) to the 8% (advanced AI organisations) must also be a holistic process, a course in which the entire organisation needs to feel consulted and engaged.

It’s simply not enough to optimise for performance – UK organisations need to ensure AI works for everyone. Put simply, leaders must spend as much time and effort establishing the correct ethical and cultural guidelines around AI as in scaling the technology across the business itself.

As the capabilities of AI grow and expand, questions around how to design and deploy it in a way that is ethical, unbiased and inclusive will be one nearly every organisation will have to answer.

While the UK continues to grapple with its “productivity puzzle”, there’s no better time for UK organisations to get serious with AI. When approached in the right ways, AI offers a huge opportunity to boost productivity and make a march on competitors.

All today’s leaders need to do now, is seize it.

Article by Michael Wignall, Azure Business Lead, Microsoft UK

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