Microsoft logo on building in Bellevue, Wash
PHOTO: VDB Photos / Shutterstock

Machine learning and, more broadly, artificial intelligence (AI) have become the tech industry's most important trends over the past 18 months. And despite the hype and, to some extent, fear surrounding the technology, many businesses are now embracing AI at an impressive speed.

My firm, CCS Insight, recently interviewed 400 IT decision-makers in enterprises in the US and Europe. We found that two-thirds are either researching, trialling or already using machine learning in their business, up from less than half in 2017. 

At this rate, by the end of 2020, we predict that upwards of 90 percent of large enterprises will have either pilot or production-level applications of machine learning in their organizations. We're seeing increasing usage of the technology for cybersecurity, sales and marketing, and in contact centers, as well as in sectors such as retail, financial services and media. This suggests that some enterprises are quietly getting on with adopting AI and machine learning.

Despite this progress, many of the pilot schemes are still highly experimental, and some organizations are struggling to understand how they can really embrace the technology. A lot of companies are embarking on proofs of concept or implementing point solutions with a narrow focus — justifiably so, in our view, because they need to start on small projects to learn and iterate. We estimate that fewer than 10 percent of companies using AI have yet to fully operationalize it within their business processes or have organization-wide strategies. 

The main reasons for this are not technological. Rather, firms have been held back by a lack of skills, an inability to define how AI will be used in the business or how it relates to corporate strategies, and uncertainty about governance and trust in AI.

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Microsoft Sends Execs Back to School

Today Microsoft has announced a free, online program that offers training in AI which aims to overcome these barriers. Microsoft's AI Business School is not a technical how-to. It's designed entirely for business leaders, and covers a host of topics to help leaders gain practical knowledge to define and implement strategies for their organizations. There are also guides on helping executives manage the impact AI has on company culture, operations and governance.

Microsoft plans to offer a range of case studies, executive insights from Microsoft leaders, academic lectures from INSEAD business school, a partner for the program, and tech talks covering a range of key AI technologies.

The course breaks down into four modules:

Defining an AI strategy, which includes guidance on creating organizational strategies. It offers case studies from several sectors, including healthcare, financial, manufacturing and retail.

Enabling an AI-ready culture, which helps leaders create data-driven and collaborative organizations. It also offers perspectives on how to break down organizational and departmental silos to embed the technology within a company and enable all employees. Microsoft also provides a maturity model assessment and a change management framework to help leaders assess and evolve their approaches.

Implications of Responsible AI in Business focuses on the importance of principles and maintaining responsible approaches when building and using AI. It also educates executives about the importance of governance, including topics such as bias, explainability, privacy, security and compliance.

AI Technology 101 for Business Leaders gives executives a high-level overview of technologies such as machine learning and deep learning, cognitive services, conversational bots and AI features in applications.

The content within each module is grounded in real-life stories told by actual leaders who have taken AI from theory into practice.

image capture of one of the Microsoft AI Business School modules

Just two years ago, few AI learning programs were available, but over the past 12 months we've seen the arrival of several offerings from businesses including Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and IBM, among others. Understandably, many of these have been technical in nature and focused primarily on developers and data scientists, who are the early sponsors of machine learning projects within organizations. Few have offered masterclasses for business leaders specifically, focused on how to get business results and change company culture to support AI. It's a gap Microsoft is hoping to fill.

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Training Leaders to Deploy AI Responsibly

Another essential element of Microsoft's AI Business School is the focus on deploying systems responsibly, a crucial element in any AI strategy. CCS Insight has long argued that companies need a better understanding of the guardrails that need to be put around AI so they can design and implement systems that establish trust in the technology. 

Trust in AI — or a lack of it — is emerging as the biggest barrier to adoption of machine learning in enterprises. For example, 43 percent of IT decision-makers in our 2018 survey cited trust as the biggest hurdle to adoption in their organization. This is why the same IT decision-makers placed the ability to ensure data security, compliance and the transparency of how systems work among the top three requirements for their investments in machine learning in 2019.

Microsoft is right to focus on helping business leaders better understand responsible AI and governance. We argue that governance of AI spans four domains: ethical design and bias; transparency and explainability; privacy; and security, management and compliance. Business leaders must understand each of these areas if they are to establish trust and ultimately succeed with AI.

Related Article: Build 2018 Showcases Microsoft's Progress

Business Leaders Get AI Ready 

Overall, Microsoft's move is an important step forward for the AI industry. Given the thirst for education in AI at the moment, we expect a strong demand from large and small businesses globally. Programs like this could potentially help leaders put all the pieces together and provide a destination for individuals and management teams to get aligned around AI.

Microsoft is not alone in its efforts to teach executives the ins and outs of AI. Look for similar offerings for business leaders from the likes of Coursera, Amazon Web Services and potentially IBM. Competition in this area is a welcome trend. The more options available for business leaders increase the likelihood that many firms will be AI-ready — and AI responsible — in the coming years.

It will be fascinating to see how customers and the market respond to Microsoft's early stance in educating executives about AI.