UK companies are not doing enough to prepare their workforces for the increased use of AI, despite leaders recognising there is a skills gap looming and new evidence suggests AI projects in the UK don't deliver as much value compared to global averages. These are just some of the conclusions in a sobering report from Microsoft released today, which surveyed more than 12,000 people in 20 countries (including 600 in the UK).
The findings follow a separate report released by Microsoft last year highlighting that despite a 11.5% competitive performance boost for UK firms using AI, only 24% of organisations were really thinking through their AI strategy.
Whilst Microsoft clearly has a vested interest in sparking awareness (and perhaps a bit of fear) amongst executives that are currently making technology investment decisions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the key takeaways do raise interesting points about how companies in the UK are considering the role of AI in their organisations.
It's also important to note that the UK is facing a very challenging economic outlook at the moment. Not only has Brexit has brought into question the future role of the UK as a separate entity from the European Union, but there is also the ongoing global health threat posed by the novel Coronavirus.
In other words, companies are facing a huge amount of uncertainty and are aware that the technology and skills are going to be central to effective future competitiveness.
Simon Lambert, Chief Learning Officer at Microsoft UK, notes:
We understand that such uncertainty can naturally breed caution, but it also presents new opportunities: the digital foundations are in place for firms to now accelerate their automation and augmentation journeys. Equipping the workforce with the skills needed to capitalise on emerging AI technologies is the next major hurdle.
At Microsoft, we believe digital transformation is only truly possible with the right digital skills, and we see it as our responsibility to help people acquire those digital skills - for their own benefit and to future-proof UK competitiveness.
Today we have new data from a major global study by Microsoft, showing how the UK's AI skills and AI adoption levels compare to the rest of the world. The findings show that, compared to global averages, the UK suffers from lower relative AI maturity and adoption, a more pressing AI skills gap, and a concerning lack of AI re-skilling of the UK workforce. This low AI readiness and skills misalignment has very real consequences for the country's competitiveness on the global stage.
Microsoft's research finds that the UK's AI maturity trails the global average. The key results include:
UK organisations are less likely to be classed as "AI pros" compared to the global average (15% versus 23%)
The UK has a higher failure rate of AI than the global average (measured by the number of projects generating no commercial value - 29% versus 19%)
A more pressing AI skills gap - 35% of UK business leaders believe there will be an AI skills gap in the next two years and 28% believe we are already experiencing one
A concerning lack of AI re-skilling of the UK workforce - only 17% of UK employees say they have been part of re-skilling efforts (far less than the 38% globally)
A lack of AI readiness - only 32% of UK employees feel their workplace is doing enough to prepare them for AI (well below global average of 42%)
Just over half (52%) of UK employees are using AI to work faster and smarter, compared to 69% of employees globally
These results will be particularly disappointing to the British government, which in recent years has sought to promote the UK as a new global hub of AI excellence and drive forward a ‘data driven economy'. For example, two years ago the government announced a £1 billion AI Sector Deal and also created an Office for AI.
The Microsoft report argues that the UK's failings are due to its ongoing focus on the technology itself, rather than the skills needed to make it successful. It states:
One possible reason for this disconnect is that UK leadership appears to be focusing on the technology itself before the skills of the people using it, while the reverse is true globally. 61% of UK managers say they're focusing on the AI they implement, compared to 39% who say they're focused on their people and how they work with AI.
Globally, this trend is reversed - 44% prioritise the technology, compared to 56% who focus on the people.
UK business leaders would be well-served to consider one of the key findings of our global study: leaders in AI are putting skills first. The research finds that those firms that gain the most from AI have also invested in skilling their employees and building a positive, innovation-oriented culture.
This point is supported by Microsoft's findings, which highlight that 93% of senior executives at AI-leading firms globally say that they are actively building the skills of their workers or have plans to. Nearly two-thirds of employees at these companies say they have already benefited from reskilling programs, and 70% indicate that they are condiment their employers are preparing them for or the AI world.
It should be clear by this point, but Microsoft's key recommendation is that UK organisations need to give employers the tools to augment their roles with AI - it argues that training is critical, developing processes to ensure learning is continuous and experience-based.
This should be obvious at this stage for any organisation that has experience in digital change - it's not just the technology that will change the way that you operate, it's the teaching and empowering your people to do things differently. It's the same for digital collaboration tools. The technology isn't enough to have a successful distributed workforce, you need to enable your employees to work differently and teach them the potential of the tools at hand.
The report supports the idea of a "proactively democratic culture", one that fosters open participation so that the entire workforce can learn, communicate and improve in the context of their actual job.
Microsoft gives the following advice:
Democratise access -Allow people from across the entire organisation to participate in AI implementation from the outset and ensure everyone has the support to understand how the technology works. This will allow you to scale.
Let your employees know what to expect -Communicate your AI plans and how you will equip staff with the skills they need.
Find champions through self-selection and empower them -Seek people who are interested and enthusiastic to champion AI across the organisation, giving them support, rather than selecting and telling people to do so.
Develop a flexible learning and development program -Giving employees the freedom to choose which skills they cultivate is the best way to ensure participation in learning programs. Map flexible career development paths and help guide employees in their selections.
Assess your business -Understand what your organisation's skills mix looks like in comparison to businesses at a similar stage of AI maturity and those further ahead.
As noted above, it's clear that Microsoft has a stake in the game here. However, the findings are noteworthy and ring true. For me, so much of what I hear from UK organisations centres around the technology itself and not the change required to take advantage of it. Companies need to understand that its people are the ones that will generate future success and they need to be brought into the fold with AI development. We hear time and time again how AI isn't a threat to skills in the economy - if this is true, we need to see more action from organisations preparing their workforces for the changes ahead.