Microsoft has rolled out an educational campaign designed to up-skill partners as artificial intelligence (AI) adoption increases across New Zealand.
Delivered through online training, resources and play books, the tech giant has detailed key learnings and insights centred around building an AI practice, as businesses of all sizes seek smarter solutions.
“AI is top of mind for customers in New Zealand and we want to support our partners as they build out capabilities,” said Phil Goldie, director of One Commercial Partner at Microsoft New Zealand, when speaking to Reseller News.
“This is a very emerging area of the market and because AI is relatively new, this is a comprehensive and valuable guide for partners. We’re all still learning as an industry but this provides a good basis for partners to get started in New Zealand.”
Delivered “free of charge” through the NZ Partner Hub, AI School training is available to local partners through beginner and advanced courses, delivered through “role-based training”.
“Using AI School you can literally start from scratch and learn what AI is, how to leverage it in an ethical way, the different phases of programming and different languages available and how to use Microsoft Azure solutions to build those applications and services,” Goldie explained.
Redmond’s increased focus follows IDC findings in New Zealand, which forecast that 40 per cent of Kiwi digital transformation initiatives will use AI services.
By 2021, 75 per cent of commercial enterprise apps will use AI, while more than 75 per cent of consumers will be interacting with customer support bots and over 50 per cent of new industrial robots will leverage AI.
“Every day, New Zealand businesses are using machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence to work smarter, to work safer, to provide new services to customers and to gain a competitive edge,” Goldie added.
According to Goldie, customers are already reaching out to partners for advice on how to leverage AI to "automate tasks and save money".
On the flip side, a select number of partners are also being proactive in approaching potential customers, helping users understand ways to leverage the potential of machine learning, deep learning and AI.
“But there’s still a need for more partners who understand the opportunity, understand the technologies and can make the connection between a customer’s business and the Microsoft AI technology stack,” Goldie said.
“The focus for partners is always centred around how they make money, drive profit and build a sustainable business.
“This is no different with AI and we’re here to help our partners understand the business model and builds skills around this area of the market.
“Some partners are already taking a wider view and embracing the whole value chain of AI, which includes areas such as drones, Internet of Things and camera technologies.”
In assessing the Kiwi ecosystem of around 2,500 partners, Goldie said “size doesn’t matter” when exploring the opportunities associated with AI, advising that the market suits both large and small Microsoft partners.
“Size isn’t a factor,” he qualified. “We’ve seen small, nimble partners such as Aware Group in Hamilton carry out some amazing work for big and small customers.
"It’s a blend because the technology is accessible to everybody which means lots of different types of partners are participating.
"We’re seeing success with in-depth practices housing data scientists, but equally at the big end of town. Partners are maximising AI in different ways.”
Goldie said opportunities already exist for AI deployments in New Zealand, citing recent work with Kotahi and Vulcan Steel as key examples.
Likewise, Auckland-based partner Theta through an AI-powered chatbot under the name of FAQ Bot.
“Theta is a great example of a partner building out AI capabilities in New Zealand,” Goldie added. “Kiwi partners are already taking advantage and our role is to find the best customer projects to work on that really demonstrate what the technology can do. There’s lots of appetite for AI solutions in New Zealand.”
In building a smarter channel, Goldie referred to the words of Steven Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of AI at Microsoft, who said: “it’s too early to do everything and too late to do nothing.”
For partners, success lies in selection rather than saturation.
“Partners must pick an area that is strongly correlated to the customer conversations they are already having and get started that way,” Goldie advised. “The play book is a great resource to download and help create your practice.
“Now’s the time for partners to skill up their staff and get them in front of customers to deliver high business value.”
Microsoft’s push into AI comes as customers and partners prioritise smart technologies in 2018 and beyond, as outlined via EDGE Research.
Commissioned by Reseller News and conducted by Tech Research Asia, EDGE Research profiled customers, partners, distributors and vendors across Australia and New Zealand.
Specifically, industry alignment exists through the planned deployments of AI, machine learning (ML) and chatbots, ranked within the top three leading investment priorities in the years ahead.
For customers, 91 per cent of businesses believe that AI and ML will have some kind of impact on operations within the next 12 months, emphasising a shift from blue-sky ideas to real-time deployments.
Specifically, 23 per cent of local customers are “already evaluating” the use cases, with 39 per cent “planning to evaluate within the next six months” - spanning data security, marketing personalisation, financial trading and healthcare solutions.
With the penny yet to fully drop among the partner ecosystem however, the onus is on the channel to adopt such an approach more aggressively in the future.
To achieve success in AI however, the channel must undergo internal change, with the current anatomy of a partner aligning to the traditional make-up of a reseller.
Specifically, 42 per cent of a partner business is made up of technical expertise, spanning pre-sales, consulting and support services, following by 25 per cent within sales, 10 per cent across business operations - such as HR, finance and administration - and nine per cent specialising in software development.
Furthermore, eight per cent make up senior management leaving six per cent of the organisation focused on marketing.
“Every partner must sit down, spend time offsite and out of the business to assess - what is their real differentiator?” asked Mark Iles, executive analyst at Tech Research Asia. “What’s the magic that they have?”
Delving deeper, the skills most lacking for customers when looking to engage with external partners centre around digital transformation and customer experience, impacting 29 per cent of end-users.
In addition, 24 per cent of customers seek cloud expertise across migration and management, alongside 13 per cent searching for skills across program management and business analysis capabilities.
Rounding off the list, businesses seek security (12 per cent); emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (11 per cent) and application development (10 per cent) as current gaps within an organisation, gaps the channel is well placed to fill.