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How COVID-19 is Likely to Change Your AI Strategy

Summary:  COVID-19 and the changes it creates in the business environment for the next 12 to 24 months means our current AI strategies need to thoroughly reviewed and probably retargeted.

Off Road Adventure Traffic Sign Concept Over Blue SkyWhether you are a Zoom-connected CXX level living out your WFH isolation or one the ‘fortunates’ in essential industries who still goes into the office, it should be apparent that in the next few weeks a lot is going to change.

Depending on your role you’ve probably been deeply involved in planning this giant if slow-rolling jail break that will get us all back to work sooner or later. 

Most of these decisions are tactical and depend on data that’s changing by the day.  But you will want to give some thought to the ways in which COVID-19 will also impact your AI/ML adoption strategies at least over the next 12 months.

CAPEX on Hold – Cost Control the Focus

Outside of a handful of essential industries the focus is on how we’re going to survive having had pretty much cratered our revenue forecasts.  That includes anticipating how long it will take to return to ‘normal’.  If you have high CAPEX AI projects underway, there’s a good chance you’re being pressured to figure out how to slow that way down.

If you’re a member of a big OEM’s supply chain or even a mid-size OEM or service provider yourself, it’s you I’m thinking of.  If you’re a giant multi-national then the impact may be less severe.  It’s the 90% of companies from the top end of the SMBEs to the bottom end of the Fortune 500 where most of this impact is taking place, at least where the benefit of AI is concerned. 

Despite all the positive press about everyone jumping on the AI adoption train for their digital journey most companies are still evaluating their AI projects one investment at a time.  That makes financial sense even if it works against creating and holding to an AI Grand Strategy.

As my favorite management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Plans are worthless but planning is priceless”.  And you have now reached your first ‘pivot’ point.

Here are some thoughts about AI direction and projects that are quick, less expensive, and speak to quick cost reduction while leaving the opportunity for revenue bounce back to occur.

Intelligent Automation / Robotic Process Automation (IA/RPA)

Whether or not your IA/RPA application contains any real AI is still a bone of contention.  Some do, some don’t.  But when the big survey organizations ask about AI adoption, IA/RPA is always close to the top.

IA/RPA projects consist predominately of task-level automation frequently based on NLP chatbot capabilities in which customer inquiries are handled mostly by machines with only tough exceptions routed to humans. 

Another major area for IA/RPA projects is in automating document based or calendar based tasks like reviewing expense reports, setting meetings, or even automating the handling of accounts payable incoming invoices which blend NLP with computer vision capabilities. 

This is the proverbial low hanging fruit of AI/ML and many companies have at least some examples of this working today.

The good news is that you don’t need to build these platforms from scratch.  There are many competent vendor-provided platforms that won’t break your bank.  There’s a good chance that with smart, well directed insiders and perhaps a few consultants you should be able to start seeing payoff in as little as two or three months.

The bad news, if there is one, is that this reduces labor requirements meaning that it works against job retention for returning workers, especially lower and mid-level knowledge workers.  Since one of the uncertainties is how many of our workers will actually return to work, this can be a buffer.

COVID-19 Monitoring of Returning and Remote Workers

The proposed project by Facebook and Google to track and monitor COVID-19 exposure has drawn a lot of attention and may or may not come to pass.  As a business leader determining who is safe to allow into your work environment has suddenly become a priority.

Commercial companies like SmartCone are already entering the marketplace with a combination of AI/IoT-based services combined with physical monitoring and transportation services.  Whether you use an outside vendor or put this together yourself you’re going to need to monitor your employees at work and also WFH environments probably including:

  • At home health monitoring and reporting.
  • AI/IoT wearable sensor systems to monitor safe distancing. This will almost surely be in your workplace but could also extend to the WFH environment and even transportation to and from work.
  • AI/IoT powered temperature and symptom monitoring stations in your workplace.
  • Monitoring and documenting your safe workplace practices including details like disinfecting work areas to protect workers and to protect you from liability.


Securely Authorizing Remote Access by WFH Employees

This task was difficult enough when most everyone was in the building and used company-approved tech.  The explosion of risk from the ad hoc access solutions and hardware ranging from Zoom to BYO computers looks to require a big expansion of expensive control personnel.

However commercial solutions from any number of vendors are directly targeting this with AI-powered solutions that let your in-house staff focus on only the more complex cases.

AI-powered cybersecurity systems are also part of this now that hackers have taken advantage of this moment of vulnerability for everything from data theft to ransomware.

Importantly, several observers have commented that this may be a driver that permanently changes our work patterns to become more decentralized.  If that occurs this may become a permanent top priority.

Defensive and Offensive Revenue Opportunities

One man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity.  This may be the way your competitors are viewing you and we certainly hope this scenario is in your planning book as a way to emerge stronger than before.

There are many scenarios we could offer but the one that is perhaps the most obvious is to strengthen your direct to consumer operations.  Particularly if you were predominately a brick-and-mortar operation with only a modest portion of your revenue coming from on-line sales this investment may move to the top of your list.

AI/ML plays a major role in targeting, recommending, resource monitoring, forecasting, and supply chain management in too many ways to detail here.  Using the cloud, 3rd party fulfillment services, and AI also in the cloud like AWS offerings, this does not need to be a capital intensive project. 

So not all your revised AI strategic outlook needs to be defensive, but a thorough review in the little time remaining before these extraordinary events change further should be on the top of your list.

Other articles by Bill Vorhies


About the author:  Bill is Contributing Editor for Data Science Central.  Bill is also President & Chief Data Scientist at Data-Magnum and has practiced as a data scientist since 2001.  His articles have been read more than 2.1 million times.

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