This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail Leadership Lab
by: Jeff McDowell, COO at Primal
The current economic uncertainty is nothing compared to the financial crisis of 10 years ago. Then, not many companies or consumers were considering the potential of artificial intelligence. In fact, AI was still somewhat seen as science fiction. As an AI company that endured that economic uncertainty, Primal has a unique perspective on how to motivate your work force to innovate to strengthen your business and the Canadian economy, independent of the global environment.
While no business can claim immunity from the challenges economic uncertainty brings, we believe there are a few strategies that can enable a business to innovate during these periods. The most important is establishing a compelling vision for what unique business problems your company is attempting to solve. The intellectual challenge of accomplishing something no one else has done before will motivate employees.
Businesses must have conviction about achieving your mission, no matter the external factors that may threaten to take you off-course, be it trade headwinds or the latest buzz-worthy AI tool.
We didn’t begin 12 years ago with a vision of being an AI company. We were focused on a specific problem – how to use technology to find meaning contained within small data. This involved complex data science and research that had never been focused on before. We had a strong nucleus of innovators that stayed true to this vision, and several years ago, it became clear that the emerging AI market was shifting toward us. That validated our mission and made us more focused.
Solving a major AI problem is like landing on the moon. There’s lots of risk, but incredible payoff in being the first one to do it. While some larger companies may provide financial incentives for patent discovery to encourage the discipline of protecting intellectual property (IP), the unique problem that our company was focused on was more than enough to keep our work force passionate about finding the solution.
BEING THOUGHTFUL ABOUT INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGIES
To stay true to your mission, you can’t be a trend-chaser; you need to be thoughtful about integrating new technologies into your business. At a recent conference I attended, a panelist made reference to companies “sprinkling some AI on that” as a strategy − and although it was said in jest, sadly too often this is true (and not just with AI).
As with all things in business, the advantage comes not from AI technology itself, but from deeply understanding the mechanics of your company and how you will benefit from the deployment of new technologies.
For some companies, AI may fit best within their customer-service function − but that doesn’t mean you should just add chatbots to your website. We’re working on a case where AI acts as a virtual assistant, monitoring a chat between a customer and a service agent and suggesting highly relevant resources in real-time to the service agent as new questions arise. This allows the agent to remain empathic and engaged in the conversation, rather than furiously searching a knowledge base for prescriptive answers that may be hit or miss.
PROTECTING YOUR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
Unlike revenue, IP is an asset that is less impacted by short-term economic fluctuations and can help buffer your business to withstand times of economic uncertainty. Primal has 148 international patents, but as we built our company, we didn’t motivate our employees by setting a patent goal to achieve. We established a mindset of evaluating each new aspect of a solution to determine if the idea was new, core to our technology and worth protecting. If so, we patented it, and this led to an extensive portfolio. By protecting IP, it bolstered employee conviction that we were onto something noteworthy and solidified their commitment to the vision.
One of the strengths of Canada’s economy is the fact that we have so many innovative homegrown AI companies. As the global AI race speeds up in parallel to increasing economic uncertainty, the need to keep this valuable IP protected is imperative.
Unfortunately, protecting IP is an area where Canada lags globally. Only 10 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses in Canada have IP, and only 9 per cent have IP strategies.
The Canadian government is helping reverse this trend with its new national IP strategy, which supports local innovators through increased resources and legislation. But it’s Canadian companies ourselves who need to see the value in protecting IP − to keep our employees motivated and validate their innovations, to protect our businesses’ hard-won knowledge and to keep strong companies growing and thriving in the Canadian economy.