Last month, Sven Denecken, senior vice president of Product Management and Co-Innovation for SAP S/4HANA Cloud, was a thought leader panelist on Game-Changing Predictive Machine Learning Radio, a special edition series of Coffee Break with Game-Changers, presented by SAP and sponsored by John Schitka from Analytics Product Marketing at SAP.

The live panel discussion was, as all Coffee Break with Game-Changers series, hosted by Bonnie D. Graham.

Denecken was joined on the panel by Ton Dobbe, chief inspiration officer at Value Inspiration, and Leonardo De Araujo, chief technology officer at Beyond Technologies, to discuss “AI: Reinventing the Way We Work.” Excerpted from the episode, here are key highlights of Denecken’s insights.

Let Sleeping Machines Lie

Graham: Talk to me about “augmenting our intelligence.”

Denecken: This is not a question of a rise of the machine — we’re not back on Terminator and Skynet. I think what AI is specifically needs to be the combination with the human factor. That has the absolute potential to elevate the human workforce into a job that is far less routine and far more meaningful, and we also need to acknowledge that it cannot be denied that the future of the workforce will be impacted. The question is how. I think AI will also generally change how businesses are run, how intelligent enterprise operates. And actually it starts from the top.

Now the good news is, more specifically, it will also drive the elimination of those routines which people don’t like, and I think the whole “rise of the machines” is not the topic because people from the workplace will dominate. We will see some changes, but we need to embrace them, and technology needs to, as always, be an enabler, not the mean.

Putting a Human Face on AI

Graham: Do you think it’s well-founded for people in certain industries to be fearful of robots?

Denecken: There will be impact, yes, but that’s not the key point. Rather, what will automation bring as additional value? As the workforce changes, it’s the time for the rise of that human workforce to come together. SAP CFO Luka Mucic shared that our goal should be for man and machine to complement each other in the workplace, with machines supporting the human work. And that’s what we need to strive for. That’s what we as business leaders also need to strive for.

Graham: The message we want to send is don’t be afraid, be enlightened. Be inspired, be encouraged, be excited.

Denecken: SAP has organized an external AI ethics advisory panel, which we’re very proud of. And I think we need to put a human face to artificial intelligence, because it’s definitely far from “artificial.” Part of the task we’ve been given is to automate 50 percent of all ERP business processes going forward; we’re going to make it “intelligent.”

New Technology: Working Smarter, Not Harder

Graham: Do you think that certain generations in the workforce are more fearful of new technology than others when it comes to their jobs?

Denecken: It’s not only generational. Either you’re in front of the machine and you’re driven by algorithms, or you’re behind that. But this is not a fear factor. It’s how effectively you can embrace it because I think that technology will happen anyhow. And of course, the digital natives have a different attitude to deal with that. But I believe that it’s not that we are talking only about jobs. It’s about tasks. And very clear task-made jobs. And we know that jobs are made up of those tasks, and we do have a huge implication in some industries. It’s more about the industry you are in that should make you look at what is the trend and what will be automated. But again, it’s not a generational fear. It’s more like which industry you’re in.

Graham: Next, do you think that the services industry has not been well served by technology?

Denecken: The beauty of AI is that it makes things work smarter, not harder. And if I look at some of the veteran professionals who are like me, we’re coming from a world where we think that the most important asset in a company is the people, because at the end, they have to define the organization and culture, and it is their ideas that help contribute to corporate success. But I think a lot of those companies are gone. And now, data is the new oil, and it has become the most prized asset of any organization. We need to put that in context, and that doesn’t stop before any industry. Because in this era of digital transformation we are in, data has been the driver that has an impact on the product, the services, the people, the experience, and your brand.

If we are truly saying what secures the company’s success, it’s those freed-up resources, those employees who are able to spend their time on tasks which create value for their customers. And that doesn’t stop for any industry, and it’s happening now. That’s why I also keep repeating we need those AI principles I just mentioned. How do we engage with the wider society’s challenges of AI? How do we drive the values? How do we design it for the people, and at the end of the day, how we do business beyond bias?

Welcome to the Intelligent Era

Graham: Let’s talk about companies that turn to machine learning.

Denecken: First, machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence. Topics like robotic process automation have been around for a while. I think they have found their place into many companies. Whatever you can automate, you will automate. That’s the factor that we’re looking at. We need to streamline businesses, because if you completed a task, it’s not going to be just a little bit faster. You’re going to see that exponential time be faster. And this also goes back to that if you are entering the intelligent era, if you use AI or machine learning, you’re also going to attract different people. You’re going to attract not only different workers like digital natives, you’re also going to attract different customers, because you’re so much faster. You’re so much more on the point. You’re so much more delivering what the customer wants. This whole experience goes around that.

Graham: But if everybody takes this advice to heart and companies completely rethink how they do business and embrace all this new technology, upskill their workers, embrace AI and machine learning, harness their data, have better conversations with customers, and improve the customer experience, the whole competitive landscape would change very quickly, wouldn’t it? If everybody goes to a higher level almost all at the same time. And then where do we go from there?

Denecken: You’re absolutely right. Now, we all know not everyone is going there. We will have companies who are not going to make that leap, because they don’t believe in that innovation, or their stock, or maybe they are currently successful on where they are. And this is something which is going to happen.

Artificial intelligence is a subset of machine learning, but what’s next? Well, that’s actually deep learning. There are going to be topics that we already see. We don’t happen to connect that to how businesses work and how we currently work. The differentiation will be if you are constantly embracing the culture of innovation, or you will stick to a climate of uncertainty. And today we see both, and we’ll also in the future see both.

Crystal Ball Predictions

Graham: What do you see changing dramatically on this topic in the future?

Denecken: My prediction is that one important thing is going to stay: your customer. You cannot anticipate what they want. You fulfill your promise, and that’s key. This sits at the foundation of any truly intelligent enterprise. Now with AI, you’re getting so much better, as we discussed before, that you, of course, are going to have winners and losers. But you need to tie that again to the human factor. As I mentioned, it’s the race of the human workforce. Human workers are not the only ones who suffer from what I would call, and I quote, “AI anxiety attacks.” It’s the business leaders, too. But even if it sounds like a cliché, we as leaders need to embrace it. And I predict by doing so we can leverage AI to create a culture of innovation. And that’s what we should do. We should do that beyond bias. We should merge quality and integrity. And then we’re going to leverage in the best.

Listen to the full episode here.