A.I. strategy: The risks and benefits of going ‘all in’ versus pursuing incremental changes

Corporate America is waking up to the fact that artificial intelligence is no longer avoidable

What was once a fringe technology more widely known for its depictions in Hollywood than its use by a few digital-savvy companies out of Silicon Valley has become a necessity for companies that do everything from work on cloud computing to making cereal. It’s a worthwhile push, too. Accenture has found that the top 10% of companies that have invested in technologies like cloud and A.I. have tended to grow their revenues at five times the rate of the bottom 25%, on average.

How executives and boards integrate A.I. throughout their companies’ operations and businesses remains very much up for debate, though. 

For the Silicon Valley–like companies whose business models hinge on technology, A.I. has long been an area of interest. Unity Technologies senior vice president of A.I. Danny Lange, for one, noted that at many of the companies he has worked at—Microsoft, Amazon, Uber, and now Unity—A.I. was always viewed as scalable across the entire organization. Most recently, Lange said, Unity has managed to dramatically expand its stake in the video gaming market, thanks to its use of machine learning and A.I.

Even Mastercard, a payments company whose roots trace back 55 years, has been doing as much as it can to interweave A.I. throughout the entire organization as quickly as it can.

“A.I. is not a pet project of a senior executive or management committee member,” noted Rohit Chauhan, Mastercard executive vice president of A.I. “The board said, ‘For us to survive, we need to put A.I. into the fabric of Mastercard.’”

There is a different breed of company out there, though. Take Stanley Black & Decker, the 178-year-old firm whose brands populate hardware stores around the world. With a business that surely has processes, technical systems, and employees whose time at the company all trace back decades, Stanley Black & Decker is part of a different corner of corporate America than the likes of Unity, Uber, and Mastercard. So, the toolmaker has moved forward with its adoption of A.I. gradually.

“A large organization cannot do everything on day one. You’ve got to prioritize,” chief A.I. officer Mukesh Dalal noted. “What should we do today? And what can we leave for tomorrow?”

But Unity’s Lange warns that in his field, a company moving to slowly adopt A.I. can face a tremendous risk: a younger, faster-growing, and tech-first competitor. “Speed matters,” Lange said. “It’s an escape out, saying let’s do it incrementally. Because then we’ll do it over here, then we’re into A.I., and the rest of the company doesn’t change. It’s really important to get into every corner of the company. Otherwise you can cheat at the border.”

Even then, though, the fact that companies ranging from Kellogg and Stanley Black & Decker to Unity and Google are all working on A.I. within their businesses—albeit at different speeds—speaks to a new age of technological familiarity in corporate America’s highest ranks.

“Are we trying to ring the cash register? Are we trying to invest in a capability writ large, pay your way as you go, [and] turn into a profit center?” Kellogg chief global growth officer Monica McGurk said at the conference. “Those are choices that you can make, depending on the top-down endorsement and the vision and speed with which the company wants to go. It all starts with that road map.”

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