The evolution of innovation

Innovation is more than cutting-edge tech and slick design—it’s about finding solutions to the world’s problems

Innovation and creativity, according to the United Nations, “have become the true wealth of nations in the 21st century.”

That’s a huge statement, and it got me thinking: What is at the heart of innovation?
We tend to equate innovation with technology and sleek design. But as a chief innovation officer at a Silicon Valley tech company, I’ve come to view innovation a little differently.

Innovation isn’t always about cutting-edge technology or shiny products. Innovation is about finding solutions to the world’s problems. We’ve had plenty of challenges over the last year, which is why it makes sense to celebrate innovation.

The evolution of innovation

The list of innovations in response to the COVID crisis is pretty impressive. At ServiceNow alone, we saw the Washington State Department of Health use the Now Platform’s low code capabilities to manage resources and staff in the early days of the outbreak. A few months later, the NBA used the same platform to workflow its return to the basketball court. Then, once the vaccine became available, NHS National Services Scotland turned to ServiceNow’s Vaccine Administration Management solution to efficiently manage its vaccine rollout.

As someone who joined ServiceNow when it was “just” an IT vendor, I’m genuinely amazed at this innovative evolution of our technology. And as we move out of crisis mode, I’m thinking about what’s next—especially regarding the lasting effects of COVID on the world of work.

For now, the workplace is decentralized and the workforce dispersed. This has clear benefits, including the potential to increase diversity and enlarge the talent pool, but also clear challenges. Specifically, I worry remote workers will fall behind—that without informal office interactions, they’ll lack easy access to the institutional knowledge by which day-to-day operations run.

So, as we celebrate innovation, I’d like to advocate for one innovation I think could help: knowledge bases disseminated via AI-powered workflows.

Maximize your heroes

There’s a rule of thumb that says 10% of individuals deliver 90% of value in organizations. While that’s hardly a scientific statement, it’s fair to say most companies have certain individuals who really know how to get things done. These are your organization’s heroes, and we have always sought to maximize their knowledge and capabilities across the org.

In the late 1980s, knowledge bases were created in an attempt to capture and centralize the information “heroes” held into a larger body of institutional knowledge. This remains a great idea in theory, but in practice, it runs into two obstacles.

First, most knowledge bases have grown organically over time, with little oversight or information scrubbing. It’s hard to find the information you need. When you do find the KB article you’re looking for, it may be out-of-date and irrelevant.

Second, very few people want to search through hundreds or thousands of documents to find what they need, because it’s so hard to do so efficiently amid all the noise. In most cases, it’s much easier and faster to ask a colleague nearby.

In a remote world, it may still be easier and faster to ask a colleague for help, which, when you think about it, is neither easy nor fast. For a distributed or hybrid workforce to thrive in the long term, we need a better way.

Workflows and prescriptive AI

In the past, organizations have used workflows to surface information from vast knowledge bases. For example, when a sales representative requests presales support, a workflow can find links to executive briefing center best practices or pull historical data on the prospective customer.

With AI we can extend this concept even further.

Natural language understanding can catalog entire knowledge bases and route that information to employees as they work. For example, ServiceNow’s Cloud Call Center with Amazon Connect uses AI-driven speech-to-text and keyword spotting to surface relevant knowledge articles in real time to customer service agents. This, in conjunction with contextual search technology, ensures the data surfaced is applicable and impactful.

Then, as AI grows more sophisticated, it will not only search documents but also understand them in order to offer conclusions and extrapolate ideas—linking, for instance, related information from two separate knowledge base articles into one comprehensive answer.

This is indicative of a bigger shift from predictive AI, which identifies a problem likely to occur, to prescriptive AI, which identifies the problem and offers its solution. Advanced algorithms currently being developed go even further than that; Open AI’s GPT-3, for instance, can turn simple text descriptions into fully built applications.

The implications of that are staggering but likely many years away. Today we have the opportunity to simplify remote work but also all work—with AI at the core of it all.

In most organizations, the majority of problems have been solved dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. And yet without the right information, this vicious cycle of solving the problem, but only for one team in one corner of the enterprise, will continue. By applying prescriptive AI to digital knowledge bases, we create a much smarter and more efficient way to work. That’s innovation to be celebrated.

Originally published on Forbes BrandVoice