Modern Business-Columbuses Are Ready for Artificial Intelligence

martin rajasalu @melt

“Someone who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.” This was supposedly said by Mark Twain once upon a time. Could this idea be translated into today’s AI context?

Yes, it could, but not exactly one-to-one. Digital capability and organizational strategy flexibility are critically important when it comes to applying artificial intelligence. Digitalization is like a qualification round in sports; it secures a spot on the starting line. If an organization is not online, it is very difficult to reap the benefits of AI. If an organization lacks the ambition to conquer new markets, improve current operations, and increase productivity, then there is little hope that AI will bring significant positive changes for them. Implementing AI is not convenient, not cheap, and does not come without pain, and AI does not work on stagnant platforms.

Beyond digital capability, the second most important factor for successful AI implementation is strategy. However, this doesn’t mean a narrow AI development or application strategy alone, but rather a general organizational strategy that supports the adoption of AI and other technologies. There must be a willingness to discard the existing strategy, as hundreds of researchers say that life and business have never changed this much or this quickly before. Therefore, companies do not have the luxury of clinging to outdated technology and strategy. The product that is valuable today may no longer have a market the day after tomorrow.

Simply tweaking things a bit is not sufficient!

An organization must have ambition and a plan on how to implement it. Simply tweaking things a bit, tinkering with a few people, or trying things out lightly is not sufficient. History provides good examples showing that some innovations and discoveries would never have existed if the entire team, the whole organization, had not embraced change.

More Columbuses in Business

Take, for example, Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage. Just like ambitious companies today do not know exactly how they will implement their long-term plans, Columbus did not know what awaited him beyond the Canary Islands when he set out to India from Lisbon with his fleet. The business plan was to buy valuable spices from India and sell them in Europe at a much higher price. Unfortunately, the weather was unpredictable, and the map was inaccurate—much like today’s business environment. Instead of finding the Indian spice market, Columbus discovered a new continent. This is a very powerful innovation that enriched Columbus, his crew, and the entire European continent much more than spice trading would have. But we wouldn’t know anything about Columbus if he had rowed to the American coast with just the “HR manager,” the “IT manager,” and “two developers.” They would have been slain, and that would be the end of the story.

The significant aspect of this great discovery is that the entire fleet reached America and the whole team reoriented from trading spices to conquering a continent. The old strategy and ambition were discarded, and the focus shifted to newly opened opportunities that they knew nothing about a month or two earlier. Similarly, companies and their leaders today, the new land discoverers, must be willing to forget their old plans and focus on the opportunities that new technologies offer.

Without Strategy, There’s No Vision

The purpose of having and modifying a strategy is not merely financial. Strategy provides meaning and vision to the work that employees do. Employees are not particularly excited about whether the company makes a profit of 10 or 12 million. It’s often said that people leave because of a bad boss. True, but what makes a boss good or bad? Often the more detailed reason for idleness and even leaving is the lack of development and vision. Companies with the highest employee turnover rates typically lack personal development plans for their employees, they are not involved in improving their work-life experience, and their ideas and thoughts are not listened to. Leaders do not hire people who don’t want to see the bigger picture, do they? Strategy is the big picture that every employee needs to see. If they don’t see it, how can they implement it? Because they’re ordered to? No! Engagement is the mother of motivation, and this should not be forgotten.

History Knows the Brave

There are already many good examples and success stories of AI use, even in companies very close to us. Everyone using social media can see and read content individually selected by AI for them. Such a solution wouldn’t be offered by human labor. This is technology that can read, listen, write, and understand the content of videos and images. How many pictures of Barcelona do you need to see before every website offers you Barcelona flight tickets and hotels for the next two days? This is marketing using AI technology. Marketing, as always. When Google was founded, it was about developing a search engine. Their strategy was not to become the world’s biggest marketing channel. But here we are. When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, the strategy was to create an awesome bookstore. Today Amazon is one of the largest, if not the largest, cloud service providers—servers, databases, programming environments, applications, AI applications, and so on.

Google and Amazon have not abandoned their original business ideas. They have added new ones. These strategies have been successful because employees understood why they were doing it and what benefits it would bring. Certainly, there have been failures as well. Failure is an integral part of innovation and development, it’s a part of being human.

Open Your Minds

Even in small Estonia, we have cool examples where small startups or large market-leading companies are experimenting with new technologies, either in brand new areas or in their main fields but with completely unexpected purposes. Today, AI can predict the energy needs of factories with a precision and speed that no human could match. In construction, AI reads information from videos and pictures, compares it with the project, and highlights discrepancies. This saves enormous resources and accomplishes tasks that otherwise would remain undone without AI support.

I can tell the same story from my own experience. Moticheck’s AI leadership mentor, Aidan, was born from employee engagement. It brought in external expertise. And after discovering AI, the organization’s strategy was no longer the same—we no longer conduct employee surveys or monitor work-life experience, we help managers become the best leaders. This ambition shifted our business focus to “a new continent,” a place that didn’t exist before AI.

In business, there’s no luxury to hold onto outdated technologies, because tomorrow, you may no longer exist. We need more business-Columbuses, companies that dare to reorient themselves. They are not afraid of artificial intelligence; they seek new opportunities and create a better future for us all.

Moticheck CEO, Martin Rajasalu to Äripäev in May, 2024

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martin rajasalu @melt
martin rajasalu @melt
martin rajasalu @melt