Digital HRHow can HR leaders win in the age of AI?

How can HR leaders win in the age of AI?

In many ways, the future is now for HR and business leaders. Though many old practices remain, the corporate world is changing fast, and so leaders must quickly pivot in order to embrace the change and generate success. Author, speaker and HRD Thought Leader Terence Mauri offers his thoughts on this, outlining how leaders can "win the future".

If I were to offer one piece of advice for HR leaders and their organizations, it would be this: embrace today’s AI tools and use them to re-imagine your business if you want to win the future.

Recently I received an email from an executive assistant called Amy Ingram. It was a friendly but professional email to schedule a meeting with the CEO of a new tech company I was researching for my new book, The 3D Leader. After a couple of email exchanges, the Zoom meeting was confirmed and I thanked Amy for her help. When I got to speak with the CEO later that week, he looked at me with a smile, and with a curious tone of voice, he asked: “What did you think of Amy Ingram’s emails?” A little confused, I replied that they were very professional and courteous and, most importantly, achieved their desired outcome. The CEO smiled again, paused and said that he had a confession to make: Amy was not a human being. She was, in fact, an AI program, and the clue was in her initials (Amy Ingram). “Will you forgive me?” he asked.

Next is now

My first reaction was embarrassment; I hadn’t been having a conversation with a human being. My second reaction was paranoia; I found myself questioning whether I was part of some experiment. My final reaction, however, was acceptance; science fiction has become science fact.

In other words, the future has already arrived: cars that can drive themselves, platforms that can anticipate our every need, and robots capable of everything from advanced manufacturing to complex surgery. Of course, I did forgive the CEO, because it’s evident that we now live and work in a ‘phy-gital’ world. As humans and machines increasingly work alongside each other, leaders will be forced to rethink how we work and why we work, and they will feel more pressure to adopt AI and automation because the cost and efficiency gains are so much higher (the more data you feed into algorithms, the better they will get over time). The challenge for leaders is to learn to see things in the present even if they are in the future.

AI is the new electricity

Reading just a few months of headlines shows that AI and automation are quickly and inevitably becoming the new engines of growth. Organizations compete on the rate of learning and their ability to offer personalized, predictive and zero-friction customer experiences. Starbucks will launch 4,000 AI-enabled robo-baristas in stores by the end of 2020 in order to automate and optimize the brewing, frothing and drinking of coffee. Not to be outdone, fast food giant McDonald’s is planning to test kiosks at some of its locations where customers can order by talking to a digital assistant, while China’s Luckin Coffee grew to over 4,500 stores in three years by putting data and algorithms at the centre of the company. AI is the new electricity and data is the new oil.   

Disruption drives reinvention

Ernest Hemingway wrote that changes arrives in two ways – gradually and then suddenly. Change is happening here and now, driven by powerful AI that is already available – and it will eat incumbents for lunch if leaders fail to harness the power of AI. Behind the scenes, digital superpower companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have already re-engineered their business models and entire operating models around software, data, and AI to power a completely new breed of organization.

Mental retooling needs to happen throughout the organization. It’s now no longer just about return on investment. It’s about return on intelligence. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, recently announced it is expanding an online program to teach AI skills. So far, 2,000 of its 82,000 employees have expressed interest or have been approached to participate. The online courses are offered by learning platform Udacity, which has rolled out an ‘AI leadership program’ to help leaders reinvent how their organizations operate and compete.

Survive or thrive in the age of AI

Aside from new software tools, competing in the age of AI also means leaders must ask new questions to old problems and new questions to new problems. When we operate at the edge of uncertainty, catalytic questions matter more than answers. What questions should HR leaders be asking to win in the age of AI?

I propose you start with first principles and ask yourselves ‘what questions do we want to be remembered for?’

  • How can we bring digital to every person, home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world?
  • How can we prioritize trust alongside growth and profitability?
  • How can we scale AI to optimize our culture and operating model on the inside and customer moments on the outside?
  • How can win with empathy while using machines?
  • How do we embrace workforce analytics and ensure digital ethics?
  • How do we adopt AI to build an agile, resilient and sustainable future?

One in three employees believe their job will not exist in a few years due to AI and automation. With so many unknowns, how can companies, individuals and society as a whole win? Now is not the time to adopt a ‘wait and see’ strategy. As agents of change, HR leaders need a more expansive view about their organization’s responsibilities and must work together to ensure people thrive now and in the future.

Terence Mauri is a HRD Thought Leader, keynote speaker and global authority challenging leaders to thrive in the age of disruption. His new book The 3D Leader: Take Your Leadership To The Next Level is due out on 1 September 2020

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