Just 11% of organisations in South Africa are fully prepared to deploy and leverage artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technologies, according to Cisco’s inaugural AI Readiness Index. This is in line with global trends, with 14% of respondents globally considering their organisations fully ready for AI.

The Index, which surveyed over 8 000 companies globally, was developed in response to the accelerating adoption of AI. It highlights companies’ growing preparedness to utilise the technology, while spotlighting gaps in key business pillars and infrastructures that could pose challenges for the future.

“AI readiness has quickly ascended to become a top business priority, no matter the size or sector. The pressure is being felt and no one wants to be left behind as we catapult into the future. At the same time, AI readiness is not a one-dimensional conversation. IT infrastructure, including networks, compute resource and cybersecurity need to be assessed, alongside strategy, data governance and company culture, so that leaders and employees are ready to explore the potential of AI,” says Smangele Nkosi, GM at Cisco South Africa.

The new research finds that while AI adoption has been slowly progressing for decades, recent advancements in generative AI, coupled with public availability, are driving more attention to the technology’s challenges, changes, and possibilities.

While 83% of respondents in South Africa believe AI will have a significant impact on their business operations, the use of this technology also raises new concerns surrounding data privacy and security. 77% of respondents admit data exists in silos across their organisations.

“However, there is also positive news,” Nkosi comments. “Findings reveal that companies in South Africa are taking many proactive measures to prepare for an AI-centric future. When it comes to building AI strategies, 96% of organisations are already in the process of developing an AI strategy.”

Ninety-eight percent of respondents said the urgency to deploy AI technologies in their organisation has increased in the past six months, with IT infrastructure and cybersecurity reported as the top priority areas for AI deployment.

“The race to AI readiness is on, with organizations under intense pressure to shift from strategic planning to execution mode in order to capitalize on the transformative potential that AI represents,” says Liz Centoni, executive vice-president and GM: applications and chief strategy officer of Cisco.

“To realise the benefit of AI-powered products and services, companies need solutions that secure and observe their AI models and toolchains to ensure performance, secure sensitive data and systems, and deliver trustworthy and responsible AI outcomes.”

The Index unpacks AI readiness in South Africa as follows:

  • *Urgency: One year maximum before companies start to see negative business impacts – 59% of respondents in South Africa believe they have a maximum of one year to implement an AI strategy before their organisation begins to incur significant negative business impact.
  • Strategy: Step one is strategy, and organizations are well on their way – 70% of organisations benchmarked as either Pacesetters or Chasers, and only 4% were found to be Laggards. Additionally, 96% of organizations are already in the process of developing an AI strategy, or even have it in place.
  • Infrastructure: Networks aren’t equipped to meet AI workloads – 95% of businesses globally are aware that AI will increase infrastructure workloads, but in South Africa only 37% of organisations consider their infrastructure highly scalable. Half of respondents (50%) indicate they have limited or no scalability at all when it comes to meeting new AI challenges within their current IT infrastructures. To accommodate AI’s increased power and computing demands, more than four-fifths (86%) of companies will require further data centre graphics processing units (GPUs) to support current and future AI workloads.
  • Data: Organisations cannot neglect the importance of having data ‘AI-ready’ – While data serves as the backbone needed for AI operations, it is also the area where readiness is the weakest, with the greatest number of Laggards (10%) compared to other pillars. 77% of all respondents claim some degree of siloed or fragmented data in their organisation. This poses a critical challenge as the complexity of integrating data that resides in various sources and making it available for AI can impact the ability to leverage the full potential of these applications.
  • Talent: There is a significant mismatch in leadership and employee expectations with respect to AI – Boards and leadership teams are the most likely to embrace the changes brought about by AI, with 84% and 89% respectively showing high or moderate receptiveness. However, there is more work to be done to engage middle management where 19% have either limited or no receptiveness to AI, and among employees where close to a third (33%) of organisations report employees are limited in their willingness to adopt AI or outright resistant. The need for AI skills reveals a new-age digital divide. While 94% of respondents said they are planning to invest in upskilling existing employees, 18% alluded to an emerging AI divide, expressing doubt about the availability of enough talent to upskill.
  • Governance: AI policy adoption’s slow start – 58% of organisations report not having comprehensive AI policies in place, an area that must be addressed as companies consider and govern all the factors that present a risk in eroding confidence and trust. These factors include data privacy and data sovereignty, and the understanding of and compliance with global regulations. Additionally, close attention must be paid to the concepts of bias, fairness, and transparency in both data and algorithms.
  • Culture: Little preparation, but high motivation to make a priority – This pillar had one of the lowest number of Pacesetters (9%) compared to other categories driven largely by the fact that 18% of companies have not established change management plans yet and of those that have, 74% are still in-progress. C-Suite executives are the most receptive to embracing internal AI changes and must take the lead in developing comprehensive plans and communicating them clearly to middle management and employees who have relatively lower rates of acceptance. The good news is that motivation is high. Over eight out of 10 (84%) say their organisation is embracing AI with a moderate to high level of urgency.