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Hey, enterprises, AI is in the house!

In 2011, in front of millions of viewers, an IBM computer named Watson “stood” side-by-side with two former “Jeopardy” champions and defeated them. Fast forward to 2015 and many of us talk to (and have become increasingly dependent upon) computer-based systems like Apple Siri, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana. Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It’s here today, and the opportunity for enterprise users to leverage it to become more productive and solve increasingly complex problems is unfolding before our eyes. Now is the time for knowledge management professionals to begin the process of separating myth from reality and begin to plot a path to leverage AI to benefit their organizations and workers.

What is AI for the enterprise?

AI is a broad and often vaguely defined concept. For our purposes in serving enterprise knowledge workers, we define AI as: technologies that can interact with humans in a natural, conversational manner and/or can solve problems and provide insights that require human-like cognition.

With that in mind, a number of technologies are already available in our personal and professional lives and are becoming increasingly viable. While many technologies fall under the AI umbrella, some that will become critical to knowledge workers include:

  • Voice recognition. Provides the ability to understand human speech and translate it into text that a machine can interpret. Long the butt of jokes because of the tendency for wild misinterpretation, voice recognition is becoming very dependable. Think, “I can interpret your words.”
  • Natural language processing. The ability to understand not just the words but the intent and context behind the words. For example, a person who asks for the nearest gas station is probably in a car, probably needs gas soon and would probably appreciate voice directions. A system might say, “OK, based on your input, I know what you’re trying to do and I can help.”
  • Machine learning/ advanced analytics.Systems that learn from repeated human interactions and can apply that to provide better answers and intuit the context and intent of a user’s actions. The better a system understands a user’s behavior, the greater the ability to take an action or provide a resource to help that user. The system might respond, “Seems like you’re attending a meeting soon, can I point you to helpful resources?”
  • Cognitive computing.Cognitive systems, like the Watson computer that played “Jeopardy,” are able to attempt to answer questions and provide insights that have not been predetermined by human intervention. Cognitive systems will be able to read volumes of complex information that users can then query and receive answers (not just search results). Imagine a system that says, “You seem to be going to a medical conference. I’ve read every medical journal on that topic. Would you like me to recommend some for you? Or do you have any questions for me on the topic?”

As those and other AI technologies find their way into the enterprise, immediate benefits will accrue in two broad buckets of value: the ability to take cost out by automating simple repetitive tasks and the ability to help users solve complex problems and gain insights that are too vast or time-consuming for humans to garner without the help of a machine. (Download chart or see page 16, KMWorld, November/December 2015 Volume 24, Issue 10.)

AI is adding value now

Solutions are finding their way into the enterprise today. The power of Cortana, Google Now and Siri to take actions on a user’s behalf have moved from novelty to critical functionality with lightening speed. Users now can lean on a system to handle an increasing number of cumbersome tasks.

Freemium offerings are also targeting the enterprise user. Amy the personal assistant from x.ai helps with the task of scheduling meetings using AI to negotiate available meeting times and logistics. Tagatoo offers users the opportunity to better identify tasks and priorities within the deluge of e-mails we all receive.

Meanwhile, products like IBM Watson and Microsoft Office Graph and Delve are making inroads into the workplace. And as the technology and market mature, those will just be the sharp point of the spear for what will become a pervasive landscape of cognitive solutions across a myriad of horizontal and vertical use cases.

Three things to do

If recent history tells us anything, it’s that knowledge management professionals need to understand and leverage disruption, not be swept along by it. With AI pounding on the door and sneaking through the windows of your enterprise, now is the time to:

  • Learn what AI really is, and what it isn’t.The gap between what we think AI can do and what it actually can do today can be very wide. Spend time understanding the landscape of capabilities out there. Some might prove too nascent to serve the needs of your organization yet. However, for those who embrace the cutting edge, being an early adopter may have a competitive advantage.
  • Evaluate benefits as well as risks.This is a replay of the old consumerization warnings that we’ve all been hearing for years. It may be cool, it may help your users, but it may also be putting your organizational assets at risk. For instance, before you embrace a solution that eases scheduling hassles for your users, make certain that the meeting entitled “Discuss Acquisition of Competitor” isn’t visible to the world.
  • Determine how it fits into your architecture and strategy.These technologies are going to increasingly look and act like new virtual team members. To that end, they should be aligned and offer integration into your overall digital workplace strategy. Ensure that point solutions either support your overall enterprise architecture or be prepared to swap them out. For example, Cortana is likely to be better aligned and integrated with Microsoft enterprise assets like Office Graph and Microsoft’s backend information sources. Does your strategy leverage strategic vendor relationships? Standards? Vendor partnerships? The answer to those will ultimately help drive your strategy.

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