11/01/2018 – Trends in Trade / Artificial Intelligence / AI / Leadership

AI in the workplace – the leadership challenge

The revolutions of the past – steam based mechanisation, electronics, information technology – are being surpassed by a new fourth era of smart machine-enabled transformation. According to Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington of Fast Future, how businesses respond to the challenges and exploit the benefits of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be a key determinant of their future success.


Technological developments are starting to change the nature, scope and scale of work; traditional business models are being overturned, professional roles are changing and whole industry sectors are being created anew. And we single out AI as perhaps the most disruptive technology fuelling this radical transformation. 


So, what do leaders need to understand and pay attention to as their organisations embark on the AI journey?


Deep and narrow AI


An initial consideration is how deep to deploy AI within a business as it has both deep and narrow applications; AI can be used narrowly to automate a single task or apply rule-based thinking to a process or outcome, or it may be used to automate entire departments – for example, customer service. How deep to take AI will depend on the goals, priorities, resources and values of the firm and where it sees the place of humans in service, innovation and sales. 


Hierarchies disrupted 


It may be natural to think that the IT department should lead the way in driving adoption of AI across the business. However, the increasingly strategic nature of the decisions embedded in the choice to deploy AI may be seen as sitting more in the realm of the COO, CEO or heads of business units and functions. Importantly, the learning to support those leadership decisions can be drawn from a multitude of different places. Industry associations, conferences and events can facilitate learning and networking opportunities, vendors can share their experience and advice, discussions with other organisations who’ve experimented with AI can allow us to tap into their knowledge and experience, and science and technology graduates can intern to bring technical expertise and fresh perspectives to a firm in exchange for business experience. 


A very human workplace


There is a growing risk that firms will become over-reliant on technology and ignore the value of humans. Smart technology will increasingly replace even complex roles – however, it will be some time before it can outperform humans in problem solving, creativity, negotiation, collaborative design, conflict resolution, and crisis response. Digital transformation initiatives typically fail as a result of paying too little attention to the human and cultural aspects of change and their place in the future solution. Hence we need to think about how to invest in staff to maximise their potential with technology in an enabling role, how to care for those whose roles and departments are being disrupted by AI, and how to raise everyone’s digital literacy so they understand the nature of the technology that is bringing about such change in their world. 


New skill sets


As AI becomes commonplace, employees’ soft skills will become even more important. As rule-based thinking and automation proliferate businesses, skills like sensitivity, creativity, verbal reasoning and communication, empathy and spontaneity may be increasingly desirable. HR or a new Department of Humanity can facilitate this aspect of personal development to ensure that businesses make the most of the interplay between personal and artificial intelligence. 


Striking a fine balance


Importantly, firms of all sizes and in all sectors will need to strike a fine balance between AI and the human workforce in their organisations. In order to preserve the human element of your business in an automated climate, what will act as a key differentiator? Careful decisions about which roles and functions to automate should guide AI strategy in business – a simple ‘bottom line’ approach will compromise the human element and could erode the firm’s uniqueness over time. It will also be important to show compassion and support to employees displaced by new technology.


The gifts from AI to society include smarter decision making, the capacity to draw new insights from vast arrays of data, the potential for cost-saving replacement of humans, and efficiency-oriented high-volume applications which are simply beyond human capacity to execute in a meaningful timeframe – for example, scanning literally millions of websites in an information search. However, a sweeping implementation of AI without regard for the impact on employees would be bad internal PR at the least, and could actually have devastating consequences in terms of customer appeal and local reputation for a business. Furthermore, the cost of widespread unemployment cannot be carried by the public alone; private industry will almost certainly be expected to contribute to a solution to the economic instability that rash automation would create.


Anticipating our next move


Ultimately, the future of work and the future of society are deeply entwined. Our sense of place in society, our worth, our contribution and our legacy are often predicated around our work. Anything that starts to disrupt that relationship between work and individual identity is going to have far-reaching impacts.


On the plus side, humans have proved themselves to be remarkably adaptable. So, while the idea of working side-by-side with a robot may at first be unsettling, a small step back reminds us that we already work and relate with AI and ‘smart’ machines every day. Predictive text is a form of AI software to which most smartphone users have adjusted. When sending emails or texts on devices, or running an internet search, we expect, to some extent, that our intention will be perceived.  


The AI companions that will join us in the workforce will be preoccupied with learning about us to try to make our lives better. Just as the predictive text on your phone doesn’t send runaway messages (usually) and the internet search bar sometimes knows you better than you know yourself, we as a society should anticipate AI’s helpful (if sometimes at first clunky) role in the workplace over the coming decades.


Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are futurists with Fast Future, which specialises in studying and advising on the impacts of emerging change. The firm also publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as AI, robotics and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, society and business and create new trillion-dollar sectors.



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