The Surprising Role of AI in the Age of Human Ingenuity

The Surprising Role of AI in the Age of Human Ingenuity

Helen Yu 21/03/2024
The Surprising Role of AI in the Age of Human Ingenuity

As businesses worldwide grapple with the demands of modern work, there's a pressing need to cultivate environments conducive to innovation.

On a beautiful summer day in 2023, I walked into the arms of silence while visiting an innovation hub in Cleveland, Ohio. The structure was once a church, with soaring Greek pillars and wide stone steps. Inside were prototype rooms, 3D printers and conference rooms equipped for brainstorming groundbreaking ideas. Even the printers hummed softly. The contrast between this sacred space and the normal rigors of my everyday remains startling to me even now.

Which environment do you think lends itself to creativity?

If you said the innovation hub, you’d be right. The uninterrupted quiet, inspiring surroundings and uncluttered space had my mind racing with possibilities. There were no emails, social pings or virtual meetings to deal with. My imagination soared.

Yet, holding space to wonder, dream, share ideas and truly innovate is getting harder and harder for many of us. Microsoft’s 2023 “Work Trend Index: Annual Report” polled 31,000 people across 31 countries, finding that much of our time is spent “separating the signal from the noise.”

Imagine Cinderella weighted down with laundry, scrubbing and mending before she can even think about what to wear for the ball. In our world, the obstacles standing between us and getting in the creative zone are unrelenting. Burdened by digital debt – a modern term for an eighties concept called the productivity paradox, which states that the more we invest in information technology, the more worker productivity goes down – we have less opportunity to focus and create. Like Cinderella, we’re stalled.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but according to the report, many people feel it: “nearly 2 in 3 people (64%) say they struggle with having the time and energy to do their job — and those people are 3.5x more likely to also struggle with innovation and strategic thinking.” For 60%, a lack of innovation is a concern, and 68% say they do not have enough uninterrupted time to focus during the day.

Ready for Takeoff with Copilot

On CXO Spice, I had the pleasure of talking to Vincent Benjamin, managing director, modern work, financial services for Microsoft. Benjamin pointed out we’re all being asked to do more with less. That’s one reason he was so excited to talk about Microsoft Copilot for M365, which is described as an “everyday AI companion” on the company’s website. Setting aside time for higher agency work, he says, leads to greater creativity and innovation.

Three ways people are driving outcomes by using Copilot include:

  • Saving time (on average 1.1 hours per week or about seven vacation days per year)

  • Asking Copilot for ideas to spark creativity (a little help can go a long way)

  • Being present more with less multitasking (I’m all in on that!)

Microsoft has been building AI-powered copilots to complement its well-known Microsoft 365 applications like Teams, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. For now, Microsoft Copilot is for enterprise customers.

At the core, Copilot is about efficiency.

As an example, Copilot in Teams will transcribe a meeting, deliver sentiment analysis to interpret tone, list post-meeting action items for each team member and take meeting notes. “We are moving from being authors of original works to editors of drafts,” Benjamin pointed out. As a former English major with a passion for writing, Benjamin lit up when he talked about this, and I think the reason is that AI-powered tools like Copilot create opportunities for us to be authors of more important works than emails and meeting summaries.

With the mobile app, a person can ask Copilot what they missed in a meeting. Much of Copilot’s features have been shaped by customer “champions” who are part of Microsoft’s user feedback loops.

Copilot was also used by a customer support team needing to reply compliantly to a high volume of customer emails. Written stiffly, the emails were not well received. Copilot increased response time, ensured emails were compliant and, equally important, assessed the empathy of the writing. This meant less effort for the customer support team which, I can only assume, could then focus on more important tasks like customer retention and support.

Day-to-day Productivity Gain

Some fear AI will replace paychecks. In reality, the technology is a useful tool for us to automate the mundane so we can think and innovate to our full potential. Here are some features I look forward to using from Copilot:

  • Organized email management. By flagging priority emails, we are free to do more important tasks. I get about 300 emails a day. It’s like Medusa. I delete 5 and 10 more appear. Copilot summarizes email threads to expedite comprehension and can even craft a response (after publishing Ascend Your Startup, I assure you editing takes much less time than writing).
  • Overcoming creative block. Inspiration fuels imagination. Copilot is like an idea partner to get you started. Enhancing existing content using Copilot allows you to tailor tone based on the audience, too.
  • More productive meetings. From assembling a meeting agenda to taking notes, Copilot gives you the freedom to focus. Afterward, highlights and chat summaries  ensure efficient follow-up.

Your Creative Muse

Corporate culture kills innovation.

I’m not afraid to say this because it’s true. Something happens between childhood and adulthood that shifts our free thinking, curious, innovative-at-scale wonder. If we are lucky enough to retain it, corporate America buries it with meeting overload, paper shuffling and productivity software that measures the number of clicks on our laptop. How will we pioneer new frontiers when tapping at the keys is a measure of our value?

As a board member for several organizations, I meet interesting people from all over the world. I hear over and over again that work is getting busier – there’s so much to do and so little time. For most of us, work begins when we wake up our tech, facing a tsunami of emails, news, social media and a parade of meetings yet to define our day.

AI might rewrite our daily trudge through the sludge. Imagine if we spent less time on low-level work like email writing, meeting scheduling, note taking or proofreading. Instead, perhaps we draw out our vision or spend time talking with customers or explore the local art museum with our team or simply sit in silence and dream about the next big thing.

Like Einstein, who sailed while solving mathematical riddles in his little black notebook or English poet William Wordsworth who walked while writing, holding space to explore ideas is a pathway to innovation. AI-driven tools like Copilot become the second-in-command as we fly above the noise and find our way back to creative thinking.

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Helen Yu

Innovation Expert

Helen Yu is a Global Top 20 thought leader in 10 categories, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity, internet of things and marketing. She is a Board Director, Fortune 500 Advisor, WSJ Best Selling & Award Winning Author, Keynote Speaker, Top 50 Women in Tech and IBM Top 10 Global Thought Leader in Digital Transformation. She is also the Founder & CEO of Tigon Advisory, a CXO-as-a-Service growth accelerator, which multiplies growth opportunities from startups to large enterprises. Helen collaborated with prestigious organizations including Intel, VMware, Salesforce, Cisco, Qualcomm, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft and Vodafone. She is also the author of Ascend Your Start-Up.

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