Artificial Intelligence in the workplace – the leadership challenge

October 12, 2017

Technological disruptions are defining this era of rapid business transformation and driving a set of deep rooted questions about the future of work, the implications for organisations, management and employees and how we can navigate to the ‘next horizon’.


On a near daily basis we hear questions such as:

How might humans work with artificial intelligence and robots?

What tasks will they take from humans and what might we then focus on?

How quickly might change happen?


This article explores these questions and the different possible scenarios that could emerge in a world where our reality and sense of the possible is being redefined on a daily basis.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The revolutions of the past – steam based mechanisation, electronics, information technology – are being surpassed by a new fourth era of smart machine enabled transformation. How businesses respond to the challenges and exploit the benefits of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be a key determinant of success going forward.

These 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. We single out AI as perhaps the most disruptive technology fuelling this transformation.

AI is the rapidly growing field of computer science focused on creating intelligent software tools that can replicate critical human mental faculties. The range of applications includes speech recognition, language translation, visual perception, learning, reasoning, inference, planning, decision-making, and intuition.


Where do we see AI going in the next five years?

The really transformational impacts arise when AI is combined with accelerating science and technology developments in other key fields such as neuroscience, large scale databases, super-computing hardware, network communications, hyperconnectivity, blockchain distributed ledger systems, digital currencies, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D and 4D printing, and cloud computing.

AI combined with the IoT is already giving rise to the new world of smart cities, where the physical infrastructure gathers and feeds back data via to the cloud to inform planning, service provision and even policing. This coupled with AI in autonomous vehicles (AVs) will lead to a new category of self-owning assets including buildings and public infrastructure.

The power of AI to gather massive amounts of data, analyse, interpret, draw inferences and make predictions has applications in every industry sector. Smart infrastructure, powered by AI and linked to the IoT, could revolutionise estates and facilities departments. For example, we may see the rise of smart hospitals, where all types of resources, from medicines and medical equipment to the actual fabric of the hospital – beds, walls, partitions are deployed where necessary based on AI predictive analytics.

Task automation is a key area for AI applications. Roles that have been traditionally thought of as requiring a high level human intellect are now being automated. As task automation becomes commonplace, and increasingly applied to chatbots or social media output, simple query responses and content delivery in social channels are being delivered by AI. While it boosts efficiency, decision makers must be mindful of how this may impact brand identity and user experience – and where it is still critical to maintain human involvement. As similar smart automation is deployed by competing businesses, there’s a risk of commoditisation – and how firms stand out and maintain personality will be a critical consideration.

All these areas of potential disruption evidence the growing need to focus on the human dimension. How will staff respond when their jobs are drastically changed or eliminated? How will we mitigate worries or stress that AI may cause? What new skills might employees need? What responsibilities do employers have for those displaced by technology? Some analysts estimate that 80% of current jobs could disappear within 20 years and others project that for each job created in new firms and sectors, three will be eliminated elsewhere.


Leadership Priorities

So what do leaders need to understand and pay attention to as their organisation embarks 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 e.g. 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 these 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.

Training may be necessary to facilitate the transition to working in an AI-centric firm; something akin to cultural or sensitivity training to allow employees to become accustomed to the new technology. HR may have a greater role to play in professional development.


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 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. 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.


The Future of Work Has Already Begun

Ultimately the future of work and the future of society are deeply entwined. Anything that starts to disrupt the 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. For example, predictive text is a form of AI software to which most smartphone users have adjusted.

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 decade.


About the authors

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, keynote speaker, author, and CEO of Fast Future where he helps clients develop and deliver transformative visions of the future. He is the editor and contributing author for The Future of Business, editor of Technology vs. Humanity and co-editor of a forthcoming book on The Future of AI in Business.

Steve Wells is the COO of Fast Future and an experienced Strategist, Futures Analyst and Partnership Working Practitioner. He is a co-editor of The Future of Business, Technology vs. Humanity and a forthcoming book on The Future of AI in Business.

Alexandra Whittington is a futurist, writer, faculty member on the Futures programme at the University of Houston and foresight director at Fast Future. She is a contributor to The Future of Business and a co-editor for forthcoming books on Unleashing Human Potential: The Future of AI in Business and 50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years.

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