Who could have anticipated in January 2020, as we were putting the finishing touches on our manuscript The Human Cloud - a guidebook on the future of work - that our world would be upended by a pandemic a few short months later?
And now, many of us are considering a return to the office (at least in some limited fashion). Vaccination rates are increasing, cases are dropping, and states are relaxing restrictions at an accelerated pace. While we don't know exactly what this will look like going forward, we do know it won't be a fully virtual world, but it also won't be a return to the old way of things
Analytics in sales and marketing tend to get all the buzz. After all, improving top line revenue is the lifeblood of a company. But improving bottom line margin through cost savings is equally important, especially during economic downturns.
When people hear “cost savings”, their mind often goes to dark places: layoffs, salary reductions, forced retirements. But in most companies, while labor is significant, it is by no means the only cost. Companies typically have many opportunities to improve their bottom line without impacting employment or morale. Analytics can help by identifying areas for improvement and determining effective solutions.
If you're like I once was, the idea of presenting to a live audience was about as terrifying as Pennywise and his red balloon. I was a chronically shy kid. My first real presentation was to an audience of 50 people at the International Conference on Data Mining. Yes, that was the total size of the conference in the early 2000's - how far the industry has come. During the talk, I was sweating, stammering, and nearly fainted.
With years of coaching and self-induced immersion therapy, I got progressively better, to the point now where I can talk to an audience of senior executives without freaking out. I even presented to over a thousand people at a TEDx event (but yes, I was still nervous as hell for THAT talk).
A lot of my confidence came from practice and guidance on what makes for good delivery: eliminating filler "umms and likes", pacing, and inflection. But it was a painfully slow process. I would have loved to have had a coach by my side every rehearsal to correct my foibles in real-time.
Well now you can. Microsoft recently launched an AI-based coaching service in PowerPoint Online. You get the benefit of instant analysis - without the judgment or snide comments - that dramatically shortens the feedback loop and helps you improve more quickly. This is just one of many new AI features that Microsoft has been quietly introducing into their Office suite.
So how does it work? While Microsoft has not shared details of their algorithms (most companies do not), they give some hints, and I extrapolated the rest based on state-of-the-art techniques.
First, the Presenter Coach (as Microsoft calls it) takes the audio track of your speech and converts it to dictated text with timestamps using Microsoft Speech Services.
From the dictated text, the service scans the text for keywords that are viewed as fillers, informal words, inflammatory language, etc. using a dictionary-based approach. This is part of the reason the service is only available in English currently - it has been manually trained by English-speaking individuals.
The algorithm also looks at pacing, either through the audio file itself or the transcribed text with timings, and compares that to best practices. Are you talking too fast? Too slow? Not enough pauses or awkward silence? The algorithm will tell you that too.
One piece that's more interesting from a machine learning perspective is pitch. The service looks at how much your voice is modulating up and down, loud and soft, based on the actual audio track. It again compares these to benchmark data, to judge whether you are mixing things up enough.
In all, the approach is relatively straightforward and brilliant in its simplicity. It is another great example of Everyday AI you can use.
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Matt Coatney is a technology executive, entrepreneur, advisor, author, and speaker focused on bringing advanced technologies to market in the fields of artificial intelligence, automation, future of work, data analytics, cloud computing, and digital content. His work has appeared in TED, MIT, and O'Reilly.
His newest book, The Human Cloud: How Today's Changemakers Use Artificial Intelligence and the Freelance Economy to Transform Work, with Matthew Mottola and published by HarperCollins Leadership, launches early 2021.
To automate common productivity tasks, check out Taisk, the AI-powered virtual assistant.
The answer, to coin a consulting phrase: it depends.
The coronavirus has already caused worldwide disruption not seen for a generation. Yet despite our collective desire to get back to normal after months of lockdown, experts agree that a full recovery is still several years away. In the meantime, most industries are experiencing contraction, and some like travel and tourism are near collapse.
In a downturn, transformation and innovation initiatives are often swept away with other “discretionary” spending. For instance, marketing ad spend, which is usually considered a bellwether for broader discretionary spending, typically drops at least 20% in a recession. Yet those same innovation initiatives can help companies see their way to more revenue, less costs, and even entirely new businesses. Technology and especially AI initiatives such as operations automation, customer service chatbots, and decision support could help businesses weather the storm and come out stronger, if only those companies could find the time, attention, and money to devote.
Cat Casey, Chief Innovation Officer of DISCO, has seen this dilemma play out in the legal profession. “While AI has been slow to take hold broadly, COVID-19 has placed a glaring spotlight on the need for AI and made it clear that legal teams can’t put off the technology evolution any longer. The pandemic has made those lawyers and firms who chose not to innovate recognize just how far behind they really are, and they are frantically scrambling to catch up.”
Whether a company should proceed with an AI initiative depends largely on its industry, business health, and corporate culture. All three are needed to be successful here. Weakness in any of these areas, especially at a time like this, will torpedo the best laid plans. Knowing when to press forward and when to cut bait is one of the toughest decisions a manager needs to make, but never has there been a more critical time to do so thoughtfully.
Nearly every industry is negatively affected by the current downturn. Sure, a few like healthcare and employment law are booming, but that is nothing compared to the broader economic damages sustained in just the first act of this tragedy.
Industries directly impacted by the pandemic, such as travel, tourism, and transportation are seeing dramatic fall offs in business, in some cases as much as 90% nearly overnight. For these businesses, full-blown crisis management and cash position must be the number one and often only priority. Leaders must make incredibly tough decisions on an impossibly short timeline, often laying off a significant portion of the workforce, arranging deals with vendors and creditors, and seeking options for legal protection such as bankruptcy.
For these businesses, the longer this drama plays out, the more existential the situation becomes. In such a scenario, no one in good conscience would argue pursuing long-term bets like AI unless they could fundamentally alter the firm’s business model and opportunities.
By contrast, some industries such as professional services and technology suffer secondary effects from the pandemic and are seeing contractions of 10-20%. Not to belittle such a loss, as it often triggers layoffs, furloughs, and other negative consequences, but in most cases such a reduction can be absorbed without cutting too far into bone. Organizations in these industries can capitalize on transformation initiatives coming out of a downturn to leapfrog more conservative competitors. And AI initiatives, with their focus on customer engagement and operational efficiency, are prime candidates for investment.
Take for instance the real estate market. Vin Vomero, Founder and CEO of the real estate analytics platform Foxy AI, sees a silver lining in an otherwise tough market. “Right now, many organizations are simply trying to keep on the lights, not invest in new technologies. But we expect interest will return quickly and stronger than before as organizations seek out AI applications to streamline workflows and reduce overhead costs. Now that organizations have adjusted their expectations for 2020, we are starting to see interest return."
The Corporate Bottom Line
An industry has significant influence on a business’s success, but it is by no means the only factor. Southwest famously bucked the trend of struggling airlines through its relentless focus on customer engagement. Out of the ashes of the dot com bust rose some of the most profitable companies of the 21st century. And in this current downturn, there will be winners and losers even in distressed industries.
Companies that are financially healthy with solid bottom lines, diverse revenue streams, and long-term stable contracts are more likely to weather the storm than those entering the downturn already financially strained. Cash is still king, and cash flow is a critical component of financial health.
If a company is still moving product, selling services, or collecting on recurring revenue, and customers are still able to pay, then R&D initiatives make sense. Or, if a company has stockpiled cash for a rainy day and can buffer the drop in cash, there can be no better time to reinvest in innovation. But if cash dries up, and every available dollar must be routed to preserving payroll and paying vendors, companies must slash spending on non-essential services.
Companies with access to funding such as lines of credit face a tough choice: take a draw on the bet that business will rebound and funding can be repaid, or play it safe and not risk default. The firms that are data driven and have strong financial planning and analysis teams will be better positioned to predict the future and can take calculated risks.
A Burning Platform
Even in the best of times, transformation initiatives will fail in organizations that refuse to change. Entrenched mindsets like “this is how we’ve always done it” will kill projects in many little subtle ways. It is truly death by a thousand cuts. Effective organizational change programs can help guard against this, but in the worst of companies, even those are insufficient.
The silver lining of a downturn is it forces people to acknowledge the necessity of change. It is the burning platform that forces a call to action. Survival instincts kick in, and managers become open-minded to projects that can improve their situation. This creates an opening for intrapreneurs.
Cat Casey sees this playing out in the legal profession. “In light of the burgeoning economic downturn caused by COVID-19, many firms are taking lessons about the need for adaptability and efficiency from 2008 and proactively increasing their adoption of AI to differentiate, better serve clients, and most importantly do more with less.”
Tony Trippe, Managing Director of business consulting company Patinformatics, sees opportunity as well. “This is a perfect storm for the development and implementation of new technologies and ways of working. We will see this with machine learning and other artificial intelligence systems as well as in automation technologies. The current situation is making business people reconsider the way they work either out of necessity, or because they have an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have to stop and consider ways to be more efficient.”
The rules of organizational change still apply. Intrapreneurs need to build sponsorship across the organization, start small, and build on quick wins to be successful.
A Mixed Bag
In the end, there is no easy answer to the question of whether AI initiatives will advance or languish. The reality is both will happen. This downturn will create winners and losers, and those organizations who embrace AI to build new products, drive efficiencies, or spark innovation will have a better chance of coming out on top.
On a macro level, the same dynamic will play out on the international stage. Those countries that are able to rebound quickly and take advantage of the need for innovation will come out ahead. Asia, and particularly China, stand to gain ground in AI dominance, while countries hit hard by the pandemic such as the United States and Europe may struggle for the next few years. The scars of the pandemic on international growth and power will linger for even longer.
The end result may well be a world where America is no longer at the center. American companies, and the country itself, will need to find ways to work as just one part of an increasingly global network. America First may well be a thing of the past.
Now more than ever, foundational innovation tactics are key: a solid business case, experimentation and iteration, and top management support. AI for the sake of AI will not help firms climb their way out of the current downturn. But those projects that show opportunities to improve top or bottom lines can make a significant impact.
Whether you are a manager deciding whether to fund a project, an intrapreneur trying to get a project off the ground, or a provider attempting to sell services, take this opportunity to assess the business case and make smart decisions on whether to advance a particular AI initiative. Your company will thank you.
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Matt Coatney is a technology executive, entrepreneur, advisor, author, and speaker focused on bringing advanced technologies to market in the fields of artificial intelligence, automation, future of work, data analytics, cloud computing, and digital content. His work has appeared in TED, MIT, and O'Reilly. His newest book, The Human Cloud: How Today's Changemakers Use Artificial Intelligence and the Freelance Economy to Transform Work, with Matthew Mottola and published by HarperCollins Leadership, launches early next year.
In the heady and hype-filled world of Artificial Intelligence, it can be hard to separate fact from (science) fiction. We hear of all the ways AI will transform our professional and personal lives, but it seems our lives remain largely untouched by AI outside of the usual suspects like Netflix, Alexa, and driverless cars. Or is that really the case?
We all have those classes or experiences that leave a lasting impression on us. For me, that was Judo. I was 21 years old, 60 pounds overweight, and had never really done a sport before. But, I had always wanted to do martial arts, and I had a burning desire to finally get in shape, so I signed up for a class.
A colleague recently asked me, "How should I ensure that my work and my contributions get visibility within the company? What new skills do I need to move ahead?" Put another way, how can one stand out and advance his or her career in an increasingly competitive economy?
I sat in an internal project meeting, frustrated at the lack of progress on a significant company initiative. Across the table was our head of application engineering, explaining why the project was behind schedule. Sure, they had worked on it here and there, but there were missing deadlines and had no plan to get back on track.
"Can you at least give me a new date when it will be ready?" I asked. "Nope, sorry," he said. "We'll get to it when we can." Then he said something I'll never forget. "You see, it's not about actually completing things, it's about showing we're making progress." My jaw hit the floor. Really?
As a long-time manager of IT teams (and many years spent as a software engineer), I have heard many misconceptions about us that cause all sorts of problems in organizations. Here are my top 5 myths, along with suggestions for how to combat these misconceptions and become an IT Partner Rockstar.
There I sat in my office, staring at my computer. 50 unread messages. A half-written PowerPoint. A calendar booked solid from 8:30-5:00 with 15 minutes for lunch.
THIS is what I signed up for? What was I thinking? By all measures, I should have felt great. I made it. Senior management. Nice office, great salary and benefits, respect. But instead, I felt useless and listless. Was this what I'd be doing for the next twenty years of my career?
You're one of those people looking to get ahead. To make an increased impact. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here.
But if you're looking for tricks, hacks, and advice on HOW to get ahead, to cheat the system, to find the shortcut as your sole means of making an impact ... you'll be sorely disappointed.
To get ahead, it's not only what you DO but what you BELIEVE.
Context. This one thing makes all the difference between getting promoted and remaining stuck in your current role. Not hard work. Not sucking up. Not loyalty. Just context.
There's no mystery at the higher levels of most organizations, no secret club or handshake. The more senior a manager, the broader the sphere they're required to operate in and influence. It's really that simple. The hard part is that most people do the job they're in today with blinders on, never poking their head up to see what's around and next. Here's the harsh truth: you'll never get promoted by doing your current job well.
You look across the conference table at your business lead. He's checked out, surfing his phone, when a question flies his way. "Sorry, what was that?" At least he's here. Your executive sponsor stopped showing up to your briefings months ago. Your engineers stopped showing up in person too, preferring to join by phone so they can work on the other projects piling up on their desk. And you? Well, you're dreaming of that vacation coming up next month, fantasizing about landing that new job and escaping this slow, grinding torture that seems to have no end
Kids can be very cruel. My overweight, shy, geeky 4th grade self didn't appreciate the clever wordplay of this nickname. Instead, it only forced me to retreat further into my inner world and comfort myself the only way I knew how: with food.
A quick note before we get started: this post does NOT address workplaces where there is overt racism, sexism, or any other kind of discrimination. If you're in that situation, run like hell as quick as you can find a new job. Life's too short and precious to put up with that.
Ever felt like your company doesn't listen to you? That your managers ignore your brilliant ideas? That your company would be so much better off if they'd just act on your recommendations? Here's the brutal truth. It's not them. It's you.