CiNext – Technology – a silver lining of the Covid era

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by Isabelle Micallef Bonello

The Covid-19 shock accelerated the adoption of technology across business sectors.  The need to reach customers online necessitated company-wide adoption of new automated technology-enabled solutions.  The need for social distancing, for example, changed corporate working methods accelerating the adoption of teleworking and, now, the rotation of workers at company’s offices.  Applications in telemedicine started to take shape, and various other technology-enabled applications that have long been in the planning finally came to fruition.

As we emerge into the ‘new normal’, there is a consistent effort to adopt such practices for the long-term.  GPs have set-up online platforms for medical advice, private hospitals have introduced new helplines, periodic medical assessment of patients moved online, as the medical sector tipped towards the adoption of ICT in a sector which so far had been shying away from the use of technology for the delivery of its service.

Teleworking is, indeed, encouraged and unions representing employees are pushing for the adoption of a legal framework while the first case-studies of local companies who have permanently moved the majority of their operations remotely are emerging.  The benefits of less commuting constantly feature in the media.  In its continuous effort to boost Gozo’s economy the Government is offering salary re-imbursement for employees who work remotely from Gozo while part of their equipment is also subsidized.  As workers experience the added benefits of less commuting and a better work-life balance, the corporate world is being convinced that productivity levels are not affected by remoteness, and in some cases, it has been documented to actually increase.

The pandemic has also illustrated the benefits of digital technologies based on big data such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing.  The abrupt transition of delivery of business and non-commercial services was greatly facilitated through big data technologies, and organisations who were already using such technology in pre-pandemic past were in a position to shift the delivery of their operations with much greater ease than others, who were not part of the virtual data cloud.

AI was crucial to analyse and monitor the pandemic, monitor the trajectory of the virus, treat patients, and allocate resources.  The hard decisions taken by the health authorities where based on the continuous collection of data and its analysis on a local and international level.  The analysis of data was two of the very few ‘comforts’ that health authorities relied upon daily when taking hard decisions to limit the country’s social, education and economic activities.

Although the adoption of technology, including AI solutions, has lately been driven by an urgent need to limit the loss of revenue and ensure the continuity of business operations, the payback of using intelligent machine learning solutions have long been documented and championed by public authorities.

Malta was one of the first EU countries to launch its AI strategy and, in the last two years, there has been a consistent effort to facilitate the adoption of such technology.  Yet, like other disruptions, surveys among companies that have successfully integrated AI into their operations confirm that more than half the budgets where allocated to drive adoption, staff training, ensure clear communication flows and re-design workflows.

AI must be adopted to the needs of the business, and executives heading the individual business units must feed the AI implementors on the type of data analysis needed that is of benefit to them.  The underlying rule is of first understanding the need and then resorting to the mechanism which can help the organisation towards the solution.

Like any other business decision, an AI investment should directly contribute to the strategic business goals integral to the company’s business plan.  An important factor is to identify methods how the introduction of new intelligence in the company is not considered as detrimental to staff positions and career progression.

As an AI implementation matures, it facilitates decision making, enabling employees to take decisions which previously where taken by levels above them.  This leads to flatter organisations, increased empowerment, and an improved ability to analyse wider horizons and explore new opportunities.  Similar to the exposure of the Internet since a young age resulting in a revolution of teaching and learning methodologies due to ‘sharper’ young generations; changes in workplace practices will host an AI generation that is better equipped to identify new opportunities and innovation, leading to higher value-added activities.