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Is AI an opportunity for HR?

Lisa Gerhardt
hr

What is the impact of AI going to be and how is it going to change the workforce of the future? It’s a big question, and not one that many senior leaders can profess to having thought about that much. Article by Lisa Gerhardt, Partner – Savannah Group.

AI begins to make its way into more organisations, it’s a question that HR leaders have to take more seriously. So what are the opportunities and challenges that AI presents, and how can HR take a more active role in its development and deployment?

The possibilities of AI
It might come as a surprise to some people the extent to which AI is being used right now in organisations across the world, even at very senior levels. Take Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce for instance. He brings Einstein, his AI, to his Monday morning executive meetings and asks for its opinion. Einstein has access to a significant set of company data within Salesforce, and is able to group, analyse and create insights in response to questions. Not only are Einstein’s contributions based on mountains of data, but its contributions can present a different way of looking at a problem. This in turn allows other members of the executive team to feed off Einstein’s contribution, challenge their own thinking and reframe the problem. AI used in this manner could provide senior executives and boards with on-demand insights to help them make better decisions.

The people management issue
On the other end of the scale, there is the risk that introducing AI presents, particularly with widespread deployment across an organistion. If we take workforce engagement as an example, we know there is a direct correlation between engagement and productivity. An engaged workforce is a more productive workforce and therefore delivers better results. It’s not had to anticipate the likely friction within an organisation as AI starts to automate tasks that were previously owned by humans. The potential efficiency savings from AI could rapidly be undone through disenfranchised individuals seeing AI as a threat to their future job security. The risk to the organisation is at best lower engagement and at worst destabilisation.

No one really knows what widespread deployment of AI will look like and whether it really will be perceived as a threat. Regardless, HR leaders can get a step ahead of this by looking ahead at the most likely ways AI will be deployed within your business first and anticipating what the impact will be within the business.

Who is responsible for the decisions AI makes?
One of the most interesting conversations around AI is the level of control we should be prepared to give it. AI is often talked about as if it were an on/off switch; either an organisation uses AI or it doesn’t. But AI has many shades and each one of these shades has implications around control and responsibility. At it’s most basic level, AI can generate recommendations based on data that a human could choose to implement or ignore. A step on, and AI can not only generate recommendations based on data but also implement those recommendations before sending its activity in the form of a report to a human. A step further than that, and AI can make course corrections to human decisions, identifying decisions that don’t fit with the data it can access and re-correcting those decisions. The final step is full autonomous control, where AI identifies problems and solves them in a continual loop without the need for human intervention.

At each of these stages, control of the decision and therefore responsibility of the outcome is handed progressively more to AI. This has significant implications for humans involved in this chain of decision-making, and again HR leaders have an opportunity to help decide what level of control is right for their organisation.

Leading the executive conversation on digital competencies
Many individuals at executive level don’t have an awareness of what’s out there. HRDs are always looking to build credibility with the rest of the C-suite, and with AI, people leaders have the opportunity to lead the conversation with the rest of the executive team around the possibilities and potential that the business could unlock. One of the topics that regularly comes up when I talk to organisations is the digital competency of the leadership team. Leaders of businesses can be more effective, efficient and productive through the use of technology but they are not always digitally competent and are therefore unaware that’s the case.

Executives need to be accountable for developing their personal ability so that they can leverage this new wave of data, insight and AI. By encouraging a curiosity around the use of technology in their personal lives, it can create an open-minded view to the possibilities of AI within a professional setting. Again, there’s no reason why an HR leader can’t be seen to be leading this conversation given the implications it will have for the rest of the business.

Finding the next generation of leadership talent
This wave of technological advancement also has an impact on future hiring strategy. As digital competence becomes a skill set expected at executive level, it won’t be individuals from traditional businesses who will be in demand where their working practices haven’t changed for decades. People leaders will need to be looking at smaller, more nimble businesses where there is more opportunity for innovation and where they have more advanced working practices.

The flip side however, is if you take somebody out of that type of environment and put them into a large corporate that has a desire to operate differently, the organisational structure, the hierarchy, and the way the business works, isn’t always set up to accept new thinking.

So despite wanting these types of people, it’s not always easy to find them, extract them and persuade them to work for a large corporate because those individuals know that they perhaps won’t have the freedom to work how they want because of the organisational structures that have been built over many years. To be attractive to these individuals, there’s a whole process of change that the business has to go through to start doing things in a different way. The company has to bear in mind its cultural and behavioural mind shift.

It can’t be left up to the technologists
There is a temptation to leave AI up to the technologists within the business, the CIO/CTO or CDO, and then be reactive to the people needs of the organisation as they arise. It’s the technologists who have dominated the conversation so far on the likely uses of AI, and it’s the technologists who are introducing AI into our businesses, but the implications of AI are so great that it can’t just be left up to them. As daunting as the topic seems for senior HR leaders, there is a real opportunity to play a pivotal role in the adoption of AI, and as the most people centric function within the organisation, it’s as much an opportunity as a responsibility.