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Advancing AI in the Middle East and Africa – does it all come down to this key capability?

It’s incredible to think the first conversations around AI began almost 100 years ago. As early as 1921 Czech writer, Karel Capek, grappled with the notions of mass automation and AI, and how these technologies would impact society.

Today, the hype around artificial intelligence (AI) is more pervasive than ever. But for many businesses across the Middle East and Africa (MEA), AI is still no more than a conversation – exactly as it was a century ago.

However, new research by Microsoft shows that although 80 percent of C-suite executives across MEA are talking about AI, most companies have yet to put it to active use. And of those organisations that are using AI, the majority are still in early stage pilots.

The question is – what’s holding businesses back?

Microsoft’s Jaime Galviz chats to EY’s Steve Plimsoll about how AI is expected to transform companies in the Middle East and Africa.

Leadership key to AI maturity

Though inadequate funding is a big contributor, business competencies themselves are undeniably holding companies back.

The study shows there are at least eight capabilities businesses need to advance their AI efforts. Not surprisingly, businesses rate data management and advanced analytics as the two most important. But, coming in at a surprisingly high spot is AI leadership, which companies ranked as the third most important capability.

Even more interesting – though companies consider themselves at least moderately competent in the two tech-driven capabilities, they ranked AI leadership as one of their lowest competencies. In fact, 64 percent of companies say they have moderate to no AI leadership competency.

This is a critical insight for organisations, particularly as it becomes increasingly evident AI must be driven by business objectives, not the other way around. In companies with a higher degree of AI maturity, leaders are also filtering AI conversations down into the workforce, actively creating AI awareness and providing opportunities to engage with the technology.

“Leaders must be able to articulate a clear vision for AI within their organisations, and where necessary, challenge the relevance of AI against their strategic business imperatives. In other words, business acumen alone is no longer enough for leaders in the age of AI,” says Jaime Galviz, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer for Microsoft Middle East and Africa.

What we can learn from the forerunners

Already, more advanced AI organisations are demonstrating this understanding in their tackling of AI initiatives. Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), a holding company owning and operating retail and leisure establishments in the UAE, has made significant progress on its analytics journey.

The company has multiple active AI implementations, including a bespoke product recommendation engine to provide personalised product offers to online customers.

Much of MAF’s success is driven by its understanding that companies don’t need an AI strategy. Rather, they need a business strategy enabled by AI and machine learning.

Developing this level of strategic ability – to launch, support and evaluate AI technologies – is a tall order for business leaders, particularly as AI technologies become more complex.

Leaders looking for skills support

Middle Eastern business leaders in conversation

It’s encouraging though that forward-thinking leaders are increasingly aware of the need to upskill themselves. According to Microsoft’s recent AI Pulse Survey, which included respondents from MEA, 76 percent of executives from high-growth companies would like support in changing their skills emphasis to better prepare for AI.

Research confirms that leaders across the region are grappling with the issues of where and how to begin implementing AI across their companies. In countries like Jordan, where AI is still in its infancy, businesses are uncertain about the way forward in general, particularly due to the absence of clear regulation guidelines to direct their AI investment decisions. This is, in part, why Microsoft recently launched its AI Business School, supporting business leaders in mobilising their teams with confidence in the age of AI.

Ironically though, in as much as AI requires leaders to develop their strategic capability, it’s also the one tool that can help them build that capability. Already, 66 percent of leaders believe AI will have a positive impact on their leadership, primarily because it will free up their time.

AI is the answer to its own challenge

Because AI helps executives tackle operational tasks more effectively, they are given back time to focus on true leadership tasks, such as more strategic goal setting and problem solving.

AI can also support leaders significantly in the decision-making process. Machine learning, which is the most commonly used AI technology among MEA companies at 61 percent, is used to understand and interpret new observations contained in key data. By combining internal and external datasets, companies can produce even deeper insights.

Not surprisingly then, more than half of the leaders from double-digit growth companies who participated in the AI Pulse Survey believe AI will help them completely transform problem solving. Even more telling – around 45.5 percent of these executives plan to use AI to improve their decision-making over the coming year.

The expectation is AI will render the business world completely unrecognisable – and much sooner than we think. Three quarters of companies surveyed in Artificial Intelligence Maturity in the Middle East and Africa expect AI to have a major impact on their industry within the next five years, with significant change taking place as early as three years’ time.

Businesses believe AI will unlock different revenue streams as new products are spun from their core offerings, and that they’ll increase profits as they redefine entire parts of the sector value chain using integrated AI and digital technologies.

“If businesses are to fully realise the potential of AI, however, leaders must develop a strong understanding of AI essentials and strategic perspectives. Staying ahead in the accelerating AI race requires executives to make nimble, informed decisions about where and how to deploy AI. On the other hand, if businesses can close the AI leadership capacity gap, they may finally be able to turn AI from a 100-year conversation to actual business transformation,” concludes Galviz.