A.I. can be a cornerstone of success—but only if leaders make the right choices

“The sooner business leaders across all industries understand and take advantage of what A.I. and data have to offer, the quicker they will reap the rewards,” writes Arnab Chakraborty.
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Against the odds and in record time, pharmaceutical companies have produced groundbreaking vaccines and therapeutics that promise a sustainable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a truly remarkable accomplishment, and their use of data and artificial intelligence to accelerate progress holds important lessons for every sector and company.

First and foremost is the imperative to embrace these rapid technological advances that are driving the fourth industrial revolution. For any company that wants to position itself for growth, betting on this agenda is an insurance policy for long-term success. Big data and A.I. radically improve innovation, speed, and agility, which are the lifeblood of all effective organizations.

Against this backdrop, it’s alarming that 76% of C-suite executives say they struggle with how to scale A.I., according to Accenture’s research, even though 84% believe it is critical to their business objectives. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, 90% of the data in the world was created in the past two years, and forecasts suggest 175 zettabytes of data will be produced by 2025.

It’s hardly surprising that collecting, storing, analyzing, and consuming such huge volumes of information remains out of reach for most organizations. But that urgently needs to change if they want to keep pace and differentiate in the new, technology-led global economy. 

It all starts with CEOs. They have a special responsibility to directly connect data with corporate purpose, as well as every function, process, and decision within their organizations. And, crucially, this must include board and management accountability to guarantee that a data-driven mindset soaks into a company’s culture. 

Ideally, a data champion should be given a seat at the leadership table to help shape corporate strategy, investments, and key initiatives. Whether that’s a chief digital officer, chief data officer, chief analytics officer, or some other C-suite executive, he or she must ensure that data becomes the beating heart of the organization. 

Data and A.I. create huge opportunities. They can maximize efficiencies, reduce manufacturing costs, create new products and services, improve customer satisfaction, meet regulatory and compliance requirements, enhance brand loyalty, and improve profitability. All of this explains why they must be the top priority in every CEO’s in-tray.

Fortunately, huge advances in cloud-based computing and infrastructure now enable companies to successfully store, organize, process, and share data at scale, making this transformation less intimidating. These platforms are built for speed and adaptability. They can support the real-time data-driven insights that can help companies empower employees and serve customers. Importantly, they are also more secure, predictable, and affordable than ever, meaning CEOs can invest in this indispensable technology with a high degree of confidence that it will positively impact both their top and bottom lines.

There is, however, a clear skills gap in the market. That is driving a race for top talent as companies look to build data-competent workforces with the right qualifications and expertise. One solution is to work with professional services firms, many of which have already established impressive data assets and capabilities. Another is for companies to create academic partnerships to reskill employees and strengthen talent pipelines. 

At Accenture, for example, we have built a strategic relationship with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science. This aims to create opportunities for researchers, students, and Accenture’s Applied Intelligence practice to work together to advance the field of data science. Not only does this strengthen the overall A.I. ecosystem, it simultaneously grows the A.I. talent pool both for Accenture and the wider economy.

Accenture has also forged a strong relationship with Upwardly Global, the U.S. nonprofit that works with immigrant, refugee, and asylee professionals to help rebuild their careers. This group is an untapped source of considerable talent, and our people have volunteered almost 5,000 hours with these job-seekers, building lasting relationships through mentorship, résumé drafting, and mock interviews. 

So far, more than 500 people have secured positions with Accenture and our clients. But this is just the start, as we aim to reach even more people with this life-changing program. We’re also working with Girls Who Code—an international nonprofit working to close the gender technology gap—to double the number of women in technology to 1.4 million by 2030. 

By combining our capabilities and expertise with these organizations, we’re not only expanding access to the training and coaching these individuals need to build their careers, we’re also considerably boosting our own business. It’s a win-win.

It’s essential to keep front of mind the crucial ethical considerations associated with A.I. There is no denying that A.I. brings unprecedented business opportunities, but it also raises serious questions about governance, trust, privacy, security, and legality. Indeed, according to our research, 88% of respondents lack confidence in A.I.-based decisions. Clearly therefore, we must work much harder to alter this perception. 

From a business perspective, this should include ensuring A.I. data and algorithms are unbiased and representative; guaranteeing personal and sensitive data is never used unethically; and building appropriate A.I. governance frameworks anchored to corporate values and robust accountability structures. 

It must also involve working hand in glove with regulators—as Accenture is doing with the National Institute of Standards and Technology—to help establish the right legal framework that promotes A.I. as a trusted tool with far-reaching benefits for every sector of society. Ultimately, this is the only way to scale A.I., so we have no time to lose.

Nearly 100 years ago, Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin by chance in a London laboratory. Fast-forward to today, and scientists are now using A.I. to mine vast quantities of data to unlock tomorrow’s medical discoveries—only this time with far greater speed and accuracy. The sooner business leaders across all industries understand and take advantage of what A.I. and data have to offer, the quicker they will reap the rewards.

Arnab Chakraborty is managing director and North America lead for Accenture Applied Intelligence.

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