Masterclass - Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence: Values and Risks

Digital Transformation masterclass

Dr Nikolay Mehandjiev is a Professor of Enterprise Information Systems at the Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS), the Director of Research for AMBS, and the Director of the Data Visualisation Observatory. He researches, teaches and consults in the areas of digital transformation, business analytics and adoption of artificial intelligence. 

People have dreamed of Artificial Intelligence for thousands of years, projecting own hopes and fears onto robots and other AI devices. In fact, AI is not new, powering real world applications since the 1970s. However, the 20th century AI was very “needy”, requiring humans to arduously encode knowledge to feed into the AI systems, impeding large-scale business applications. This all changed when advances of internet and other digital technology disrupted business status quo, causing companies to shore up their strategic positions through digital transformation. Digital transformation is often enabled by data and data analytics. More importantly, though, it always generates huge volumes of data about business operations and customers. This enables a new kind of AI, one where machines can learn without humans from the big data sets available. Using this AI, businesses can scale up their operations with fewer human workers. These developments bring about a new kind of risks, where we really don’t understand how AI derives its conclusions. It seems to work for the data at hand, but should we trust it fully without understanding it? This interactive masterclass linked the different steps on this journey, giving examples of research projects undertaken by the Digital Transformation research group, Alliance Manchester Business School, and charting opportunities for further collaborative research in the area.

In his role as research director at AMBS, Nikolay is responsible for enabling the research culture and pulling together different aspects to ensure the school continues to perform strongly. AMBS has a large and diverse group of around 200 research-active academics, which allows the school to cover vast areas of different specialisms. He has taught digital transformation on the Global Part-time MBA programme covering digital strategies and information systems within organisations. For his masterclass, he chose to explore the value of AI for organisations - and some of the risks. 

Dr. Mehandjiev was in Dubai to attend the European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Conference on Information Systems (where some of his PhD students were presenting) to catch up with fellow academics. EMCIS is a prestigious annual research event that brings together Information Systems (IS) professionals and academics. It focuses on various technical, organizational, business, and social issues related to the application of Information Technology. Dr Mehandjiev took time from his schedule to deliver a fascinating masterclass in Dubai for students, alumni and candidates, on Digital Transformation and Artificial Intelligence: Value and Risks.

“In the talk, I covered the interdependence of different aspects of a contemporary organisation. We should not introduce technology just for the sake of it and we should aim to optimise the interdependence between the business strategy and information systems strategy (today, more or less the ‘digital strategy’) and the organisational strategy on the other side, which relies on people and reward systems and mechanisms in an organisation. It’s a very complex system and usually interdependent and so rushing to introduce technology is a risk without co-optimising the other systems. For the masterclass, I aimed to cut through the hype surrounding AI and see the risks, while understanding the complexity of ‘throwing technology’ at business problems.

Dr Mehandjiev stressed that he doesn’t believe technology will take us over any time soon but he does strongly believe it will be one of the decision tools in our arsenal. “There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the potential of AI to replace us. AI is a very good decision-making support tool. AI is already making operational decisions without intervention but it’s a well-controlled situation in very narrow areas and it works. In other areas, I don’t believe we are close to replacing general intelligence just yet.”  

Over the last three years on the Manchester MBA, in response to rising interest, AMBS has introduced a number of new options that all link together, from a 101 course as a general introduction to information systems and how they inform digital strategy, and separate modules on topics such as big data, platforms, digital economy, and AI. “We now have a portfolio of modules all plugging into a common core, which can help specialists or generalists who have an interest in the field. We have also done significant work to develop open executive education programmes, where we have a significant stream on digital platforms and AI, along with other related modules in this area.”

Dr. Mehandjiev stressed that one of AMBS’ driving strategies is to do engaged research and not research for its own sake. As a research-driven school, AMBS wants to see impact and engage with industry to ground research in real industrial needs and practices. “There are interesting problems in different societies - how perceived wisdom in one society may apply to another is a hot area of research interest and we would welcome opportunities for collaboration.”