Adopt to adapt: Canadian businesses must embrace AI to stay competitive

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most powerful economic drivers of our time. Every year, its capacity to effect change, not just for businesses, but for society as a whole, becomes increasingly clear. Already, AI has touched almost every industry and sector of society, and will undoubtedly transform them over time. Almost two-thirds of global businesses surveyed by Deloitte Canada said AI technologies are important to their business success.

Canadian businesses are starting to see the opportunity in AI. That’s likely why we’ve seen a commitment to research, a growth in the talent pool, and a rising number of startups across the country. It’s a good start, but it is not enough to put us ahead of the global pack. And this matters, because Canada has more than an opportunity to become a global AI leader, we have a responsibility to do so, because it means securing a prosperous future for our nation.

The risks of inaction

This is a simple economic reality. Companies that do not fully embrace AI risk losing future market share and falling behind. And that not only jeopardizes their own future, it is also affecting the country’s; Canada now lags significantly behind its global peers in adopting AI.

“Part of the hesitation comes down to fear. A lack of education and literacy in AI.”

We must take steps now to establish a world-class AI ecosystem at home, and increasing both business and consumer demand for the technology. Canada’s business leaders must play an active role. Those who don’t already use AI need to adopt it, while those who have need to scale up their AI deployment to unleash its potential.

According to the fourth installment of Deloitte’s Omnia AI series, Canada’s AI imperative: Start, scale, succeed, at least 71 percent of Canadian businesses have not even begun to implement AI, while Canada’s early adopters are struggling to scale their pilot projects. Canada spent only 1.5 percent of GDP on AI research and development (R&D) in 2018, a figure that has been trending downward over the last few years. In contrast, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) spent an average of 2.4 percent on R&D in 2018.

Part of the hesitation comes down to fear. A lack of education and literacy in AI, combined with a perceived lack of access to the necessary tools, skills, and resources, have Canadian companies defaulting to their usual wait-and-see attitude. This raises the danger that our businesses will lose significant first-mover advantages.

Overcoming the challenges

To avoid becoming runners-up in the race to lead the world in AI, Canada’s business leaders need to get serious about adopting the technology. This means increasing their knowledge not only of AI in general but also of its industry-specific applications, adopting an optimistic attitude, and upgrading their digital capabilities and technological readiness.

It also means building on the lessons learned from early adopters to understand how to overcome common challenges. This starts by taking a look at the types of challenges companies typically encounter when either adopting AI or scaling AI applications. According to more than 1,000 Canadian businesses surveyed, these include:

  • Securing adequate resources and budget
  • Tackling people problems and accessing skills
  • Obtaining and maintaining leadership buy-in
  • Overcoming limited understanding about AI
  • Establishing technical readiness and building technical capabilities
  • Measuring and proving the results of AI pilots

While these are tough obstacles to overcome, what separates the laggards from the leaders is the willingness to move forward. AI adopters do not wait for the perfect conditions before investing and deploying. They understand they can only secure their future by setting their vision into motion.

From start to scale

To ensure our country’s future economic prosperity, Canadian businesses have to be prepared for the transformation that will inevitably sweep through society and to take a leadership role in shaping an AI-driven future. More than that – they have a duty.

For companies that have not yet adopted AI, this means embarking on a mission to properly educate themselves and their workforce about AI, nurturing optimism about AI’s transformative potential, and putting the technical capabilities into place. For those scaling up, it means enhancing their digital capabilities, securing C-suite support, and mobilizing employees by demystifying AI.

In both cases, companies can look to their peers for valuable lessons on how to test and scale AI. By building and maintaining this momentum, we can collectively help to turn Canada into a global AI leader.


Shelby Austin

Shelby Austin is the Managing Partner of Omnia AI at Deloitte Canada. Shelby helps businesses drive significant growth through innovation, technology, and data-driven decision making. She leads a globally recognized team of artificial intelligence strategists, machine learning engineers, data scientists, and risk specialists.

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