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Friday, April 19, 2024

AI in Action: three ways that technology will transform SA’s workplaces

Since the launch of ChatGPT in late 2022, the world has been abuzz with talk about the generative AI revolution and what it means for almost every sphere of society. Its impact on the workplace – the way people relate to each other as employees, perform their work duties and integrate technology into their working days and spaces, has generated widespread curiosity. From large corporates and multinationals to the millions of small businesses, many exciting developments are underway.

Commenting on this is Kgomotso Ramoenyane, Executive General Manager for Human Resources at Business Partners Limited who says that in a very short space of time, “AI has been catapulted out of the realm of fringe technology and has become part of the mainstream. We’re already seeing its transformative capabilities in several of the country’s most important sectors.

According to global consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group, the four most impacted sectors will likely be healthcare, education, financial and agriculture. These sectors – and so many others – rely heavily on supply and service delivery chains that are centred around the capabilities of small businesses. The impact of AI, therefore, will be so much bigger and better than many of us may realise.”

Empowering employability

Powerful examples of AI’s ability to transform lives and livelihoods can be seen in platforms like the recently held ‘AI: A New Era’ event hosted by Microsoft, which announced its partnership with Presidential Youth Employment Services (YES), to drive the country’s AI employment revolution. By introducing AI platforms into workplaces, the initiative will train and empower as many as 300 000 young South Africans with AI-related skills that will prove indispensable in the years to come.

These kinds of initiatives are likely to proliferate as emerging technology becomes a part of everyday life and the daily working routines of ordinary South Africans across almost every sector. AI in particular, has the ability to accelerate the competence of people in the skills of the future – skills like digital literacy, which will lay the groundwork for South Africa to increase its influence as a contender on global markets.

As Ramoenyane explains: “The introduction of tools like ChatGPT and Copilot into the workplace is not unlike the very first use cases for tools like Spellcheck, the Qwerty keyboard and email. Gradually, tools like these have become part of how we work and live, not in a disruptive way but in a way that enables people and democratises aspects like language or long-distance communication.

This will in turn have a positive effect on the potential for job creation by diminishing some of the hurdles and barriers to entry that people have faced in the past and casting the net of employability over a broader cross-section of society.”

More digital efficiency. More human ingenuity.

One of the most significant aspects of the modern workplace that AI will transform is operational efficiency. So far, the use of AI-powered tools has seen phenomenal results in terms of productivity, and by extension, the profitability of companies. Much of AI’s ability to power these metrics relates to its ability to automate some of the more arduous and time-consuming manual tasks that workers perform on a daily basis.

For example, in a call centre environment, an AI-powered chatbot can be used to initiate conversations with customers, identify their query and gather information such as identity numbers which will streamline the customer service process. The system could then automatically connect the customer with the relevant department, where a call centre agent can pick up the call and deal with the query directly, bringing the invaluable human element into the customer experience.

The call centre agents of the future will be able to offer a higher level of service to more customers, boosting call centre capacity and enhancing the value proposition of human-led customer experiences. Cases like these illustrate the ability of AI technology to take care of the tasks that can be expedited by automation, to free up more valuable human resources for more personalised customer interactions and engagements.

Maximising human potential

In a recently published article, the World Economic Forum argued that the future of AI in the workplace is less about automation and more about augmentation. In other words, AI technology will be used in ways that enhance human capabilities that digital technology will simply never be able to replicate. These include capabilities like human imagination, innovation and creativity.

The effects of this transition are already being seen in companies abroad, with one survey of AI experts showing that most managerial skills are likely to be augmented rather than automated by AI in the future. Overall, AI has the potential to augment managerial skills by providing managers with powerful tools and insights to make better decisions, optimise processes, and drive business performance.

As Ramoenyane concludes: “People will always manage people. Machine technology can however, free up time, flag risks, identify compliance issues, make forecasts and predictions, and help us with the selection process for new employees. We need to see AI as a powerful tool that we will wield in the workplace of the future, particularly for small and medium enterprises, enabling us to leverage technology to enhance our human skills and drive organisational success.”

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