Sunday 14 Apr 2024
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 12, 2023 - June 18, 2023

Watches that can save lives by detecting heart failure. Artificial intelligence (AI) can diagnose a rare form of leukaemia by combing through a database of 20 million research papers in just 10 minutes. These are just two of the amazing things that modern technology and AI have already made possible.

This combination is now making waves in the business world, following the arrival of ChatGPT, a conversational chatbot driven by AI, which has amazed and amused in equal measure. Malaysian businesses that do not see AI bringing changes to the workplace anytime soon should be aware that the future may already be here.

How we interact with the machines and devices that we rely on in the workplace is changing with the advent of these powerful and highly intelligent conversational AI chatbots. In March, Microsoft announced the arrival of Microsoft 365 Copilot, an AI-powered productivity tool that set the entire industry abuzz. The sheer productivity potential that may be unlocked for businesses big or small with this platform looks to be a game changer at the workplace when it is integrated into apps like Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

If it works the way the tech giant says it does, we are looking at something that can help a company analyse its sales trends, identify cost drivers or even pull out that list of employees with birthdays in a particular month. As long as there is quality data fit for purpose, all Microsoft 365’s Copilot needs is effective prompts to generate the desired outputs.

With the assistance of AI, a user could extract key decisions from a missed Teams meeting instead of digesting five pages of minutes. With the right prompts, an Excel user could glean insights and analyse 12 months of sales in minutes, instead of hours. Generative AI is set to save hours of laborious toil, allowing users to make better use of their time by executing higher value work. The crux of it is this: The arrival of such technology means the gap between winners and losers is going to widen.

Teams enabled by modern tools are able to work faster and better, beating their less efficient peers and contributing to better margins. The International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook is signalling tough times ahead, which means efficiency and effectiveness will be crucial, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which have only small teams on hand to keep everything running.

Unfortunately, the local landscape shows that many Malaysian businesses remain stuck in the 1990s. Fedelis recently surveyed the email domains of about 3,000 members of Malaysian industry associations in construction, manufacturing, accounting and financial services. We found that only 25% of these companies use cloud-based collaborative work tools like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365, which provide a complete suite of products from email to spreadsheets to online meetings.

The remaining 75% use only simple hosted email systems and seem to operate without the modern productivity tools crucial for today’s fast-paced digitally driven workplaces. Alarmingly, only half have registered their own domain names for business use. The other half still rely on public free email services, which in the IT context are ancient tools that carry the risk of data breaches, malware, spyware and other hazards.

Many companies may operate on the basis of “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” The experience of once-giant mobile phone maker Nokia shows why. As its former CEO Stephen Elop said in 2016, “We didn’t do anything wrong but somehow, we lost.”

Outdated technology brings loss in productivity and hidden costs to business. The recent KLIA Aerotrain breakdown serves as a cautionary tale on the importance of investing in modern technology. This incident was a debacle that delivered significant reputational damage to an organisation. Passengers had to walk on train tracks, in the rain no less, and at least 10 people missed their flights. The uproar that followed was not pretty.

Businesses must continually invest in technology to stay ahead of the competition and to thrive. Combine the advent of innovative technology with the fact that the world is at the crossroads of a workforce generational shift, companies that do not adapt will be left behind. It is not a question of if, but when.

The 21st century workforce will expect modern work tools that will help them perform as a matter of fact, just like the smartphones in our hands. They will reject having to run back to the office just to access documents, or the inability to collaborate or share ideas on a single document instead of creating mini mountains in document versions or submitting paper forms for various administrative tasks. Organisations that still operate like a 20th century company when there are powerful AI capabilities already around the corner to aid productivity will most likely struggle to keep up.

While the adoption of modern technologies will not be a panacea for all business challenges, it is clear that the need to fully embrace modern work platforms will only continue to grow as businesses seek to stay competitive in an ever-changing market. Just imagine how fast reports — that necessary evil for all business decision-making — can be generated using the right modern tools.

As a first step, it is high time that 75% of SMEs in the survey above that are still using traditional email systems make the move to modern platforms like Microsoft 365.

The era in which we now live, where technology and machines are reshaping society and rewriting the rules of the economy, is truly as amazing as it is intimidating. For Malaysian businesses to chart new horizons, remaining in one’s comfort zone is not an option.

Vincent Choy is a senior consultant at Fedelis Sdn Bhd, a boutique IT firm focusing on cloud technology and business-led analytics

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