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Isn’t AI just 'another innovation'?

Let’s acknowledge there is significant disruption much broader than the impact of AI and make plans to leverage it
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By Mark Edgar

The subject of AI and its impact on organizations and people dominates conversations I have with business and HR leaders about the new world of work.

A 2018 McKinsey report of Canadian executives identified that 87 per cent of companies are going to increase their investments in AI over the next three years. RBC’s report Humans Wanted identified that 50 per cent of jobs would be impacted by technology by 2028.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that AI has become a catchall term to refer to any form of technological disruption.

But I’m probably not alone when I say there’s an obsession with AI — without organizations necessarily having a full understanding of it. Isn’t AI just “another innovation”? The invention of the wheel, the light bulb, and the Internet — each created a seismic level of disruption in the workplace. How is AI any different?

Many would correctly argue that new technologies like AI are being created at a far more exponential rate. Does that mean rather than AI being just “another innovation,” it’s about AI being “accelerated innovation”?

Rather than focusing on the language or, even worse, creating new language, let’s acknowledge that there is significant disruption that is much broader than the impact of artificial intelligence, and start to make plans to leverage it.

But that’s one of those easy to say-hard to do things. Where do we start?

Act now

I’ve tried to stop using the term “future of work.” It creates a false sense of security that we have time or, worse, that we can wait for the next generation of leaders to act.

I don’t believe we have time. We need to create a burning platform to get people to recognize and identify the main disruptors. It takes time to build change management strategies to support leaders and people who are dealing with change.

It’s reassuring when Mercer reported that 99 per cent of organizations are “preparing for the future of work,” but is that enough? “Preparing” can be very different than “doing.”

Continuous learning and staying curious are two proven ways to deal with automation and create sustainable careers. Typically, education and training has had a one-size-fits-all approach. Now, that needs to change.

Organizationally, leaders need to think of a “dual training” educational model, whereby hands-on-training accompanies customized classroom courses for employees. “In 2014, less than five per cent of young Americans were training as apprentices, compared to 60 per cent of young people in Germany. Leaders at both the government and C-suite level must be better about endorsing technical education and we mustn’t perpetuate the stigmas that attempt to devalue this extremely valuable work,” said Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation (IWSI America) in an Oct. 8, 2019 Harvard Business Review article.

“Apprenticeships match training to real needs, assure a pipeline of can-do people, keep pace with changes in technology, and provide a positive return on investment.”

As part of my own continuous learning, I am taking an online design thinking course through Ideo, a design thinking institute that encourages to see the world differently by making deeper observations, interviewing cross-sections of people, and using empathy to analyse insights.

To do this, I spent an hour at a VIA Rail station observing 70-year-olds commuting to understand their challenges and look for efficiencies.

As an HR leader, the same design thinking principles apply when I’m observing employees collaborate and going about their work and day. What’s driving them? What do they have to contend with at work and even at home? What can be changed to make them more productive, happier at work?

Build the right capabilities

In his latest research, Josh Bersin highlights a “build versus buy” approach to critical talent development. He advocates for a build rather than a buy strategy, because his findings illustrate that “build often outperforms buy.”

Building talent internally is not a new idea, but “the economy has created a bidding war for people with critical skills, increasing the cost and risk of hiring from the outside. The economics have now totally shifted: it’s more cost-efficient and far more effective to build critical skills from within. And there are many cultural benefits as well,” says Bersin.

After conducting extensive interviews with mega corps like Bloomberg, Adobe and Guardian, Bersin’s team of researchers found, time and time again, that now, more than ever, there is a need for organizations to build what he calls a “capability academy” to develop skills internally.

In addition to thinking about the capabilities in your organization, it’s important to think about your leadership capabilities. Ask yourself: “How, in the new world of work, are we developing new capabilities in our leaders? What new approaches are we taking? What strategies do we have to hold leaders accountable to the expectations that accompany disruption?

It’s time to take a new approach to leadership development to provide leaders with the capabilities to succeed in the new world of work. Experiential events that build self-awareness and broader environmental awareness are critical. Once you’ve developed these new skills, hold people accountable to the new expectations.

Take a human approach

Somewhat ironically, the volume of technology disruption amplifies the need to take a human approach. I am writing this article while sat in the lobby of one of the major banks. I look around. Yes, of course, some people are heads down interacting with their devices, but more people are interacting with each other. Meeting for lunch or heading out for a coffee. Strategizing before an important meeting or getting some guidance from a friend.

As technology advances through “another innovation” or “accelerated innovation,” our humanistic skills need to develop faster. People want meaningful work and a worker (dare I say human) experience where they can make an emotional investment. Where they can be all in. 

Again, ask yourself, do you have a clearly defined purpose that is embedded in your organization? Have you defined the characteristics of your culture that will ensure you evolve? Have you reviewed your worker experience?

While AI is about machines, it is more about how machines can make human lives better and make us more human. Most organizations are still struggling to find a use-case for integrating AI technologies into their workflow. Can it be that AI integration into an existing process seems difficult and expensive, because the process itself needs to be eradicated?

We need to recognize that AI is useful in making us smarter and more human. If there are systems in place that make us mechanical in our daily lives, then those systems need to be replaced by robots, so we can apply our human nature appropriately and naturally.

So, act now. Build capabilities. Take a human approach. Implementing these steps will help you leverage the great opportunities that come from AI (artificial intelligence) and the next AI (another innovation) and allow your organization and your people to thrive in the new world of work.

Having spent more than 25 years in senior HR roles across Canada and the U.K., Mark recently set up a consulting practice focused on ensuring organizations and people thrive in the new world of work. He is co-founder of future foHRward, a Toronto-based community to support HR professionals with the future of work and is a board member of SC Network responsible for programming.

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Executive Blogger

The Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) is a membership-based organization for business leaders by business leaders. SCNetwork helps leaders achieve competitive strength through people, by providing a forum for leading-edge thinking and application. Our monthly events feature provocative and thoughtful speakers on issues preoccupying today's organizations. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit www.scnetwork.ca.
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