When we think ground-breaking applications of artificial intelligence (AI), the first thing that comes to mind is keeping up with the ever-evolving tech space.

UAE companies are heavily focused on customer engagement when it comes to AI. The use of chatbots in the marketing space has become common, largely because they enhance customer experiences, and thus ultimately demonstrating obvious value to management.

The Majid Al Futtaim group embarked on a digital transformation journey with the ambition to become as prominent digitally as it is physically, and identified data, analytics and technology as key enablers. Its AI ambition relies on four critical pillars — access to rich data, the right mindset internally to drive innovation and adoption, the appropriate skills to implement new technologies, and the right internal governance framework to drive the transformation.

According to a Microsoft study, the conglomerate draws on a combination of automation, IoT and AI technologies in a pattern. It’s an indication of just how common AI is becoming.

But to fully benefit from the age of AI, executives need to take their conversations around AI and turn them into business value. The time to start implementing strategy is now, to gain competitive advantage while the region is still at the piloting phase of the AI maturity curve.

Snap up the talent

Early adopters are most likely to be successful when it comes to attracting senior AI professionals. Because the recruitment of AI talent has become extremely competitive, it’s risky for companies to adopt a wait-and-see approach, as they might find themselves trying to recruit skills from a shrinking talent pool.

The importance of recruiting and developing the right talent can’t be overstated. We know based on our “AI Maturity Report” that lack of talent is still the greatest barrier to implementation of AI within business operations.

The question is how can companies overcome this challenge?

External alliances

Companies have had significant success accessing key AI skills by drawing on external alliances. In fact, 65 per cent of respondents indicate their company is either “very” or “highly” skilled at building external partnerships.

This strategy has worked well for Majid Al Futtaim, a holding company that owns and operates retail and leisure establishments. The business harnesses the power of strategic partnerships to enhance its AI capabilities, working with the likes of Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative, Hyperledger and Smart Dubai.

Already the company uses AI across its business, drawing on functions such as robotic process automation to enhance human capital, finance and supply chain processes. It is also making good use of tools like social media listening and sentiment analysis.

Nurture hybrid talent

The development of internal talent is a key component of its digital transformation strategy. Advanced AI implementers understand the benefit of upskilling existing talent because they have such a critical understanding of the business.

Executives surveyed for our report consistently say that hybrid profiles are the most valuable skill set when it comes to AI. Simply put, these are individuals with deep knowledge on specific business areas as well as strong technological proficiency.

Foster collaboration

One of the biggest challenges around introducing AI to business operations is the uncertainty it can cause among staff members. Companies don’t always see the relevance of involving the entire organisation in a broad, collaborative approach on AI as the benefits of the technology are typically limited to specific functions.

The result is that few employees truly know what AI is or how it can help them do their jobs more effectively. Rather than leaving AI to a few dedicated professionals, the most advanced companies in the region are opening up collaboration, which enables them to fully explore innovative opportunities.

Etihad Airways, which has been using AI for some time, tackled this challenge by launching an Artificial Intelligence Academy to deliver grass roots training to all employees. Once they understood how AI could make their jobs easier they became much more proactively engaged in the airline’s change programme.

AI leadership

Nowhere is the development of internal AI skills more important than at the most senior levels of the business.

Middle Eastern executives are realising that business acumen alone will not help them understand how AI is impacting their business. And as AI technologies become increasingly complex, leaders need to be able to launch, support and even evaluate AI initiatives against strategic business imperatives.

Research confirms that leaders across the region are grappling with issues of where and how to begin implementing AI across their companies. This is, in part, why Microsoft recently launched its AI Business School, so that leaders can access the support they need to mobilise their teams with confidence in the age of AI.

Interest in the school has been significant — in the first six months of operation alone, it has engaged more than 400,000 business leaders. We have also since expanded the initiative, including new and adapted modules within the school’s learning path as well as content specifically for government leaders.

Taking that plunge and making an early investment in AI talent might seem risky, but if the experiences of other businesses across the region are anything to go by — not investing in the development of internal competencies might just be the greatest risk of all.

Ihsan Anabtawi is Chief Operating and Marketing Officer, Microsoft UAE.