Is your culture ready for the AI future? | Gagen MacDonald

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Is your culture ready for the AI future?

Aug 01, 2023

Faced with the explosion of AI opinion flooding newsfeeds, conference keynotes and inboxes, it would be understandable for any executive to feel a little overwhelmed. That feeling is likely not reduced when the spectrum of “popular” opinion on how AI will impact an enterprise ranges from Jerry McGuire euphoria to Chicken Little paranoia.

Like many innovations that have preceded it, we’ll look back in a decade and recognize that between the hype and the hyperbole, AI will have had a profound impact on the ways we work, how we organize, distribute and deploy our humans and our capital and that many of those transformations will be both unexpected and unanticipated. In the sage words of Ray Amara and his eloquent “Law” – “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

What’s not open to debate is whether you and your executive team can take the bench and sit this one out.

Somewhere between your Board of Directors, activist shareholders and industry analysts, someone’s already asking for your AI strategy and a detailed determination of your AI readiness.

The critical question to ask — and give pause for — before you rush headlong into an AI investment is:

Do we have a culture that can absorb and sustain an AI transformation?

That might seem a bizarre question. After all, isn’t culture to do with the humans inside my organization and isn’t AI about augmenting those humans or, more bluntly, actually removing them entirely from the equation?

Here’s the rub and a definition of culture I’ve always found useful.

Culture is the combination of mindsets, actions, beliefs and behaviours that underpin and drive how decisions are made within your organization.

So, again, how might your organization’s current culture impede or accelerate your ability to initiate an AI strategy?

Does your culture encourage experimentation and risk-taking?

One thing all AI pundits can agree on is that AI, in its present form, is evolving at pace. The potential use cases for its application only hindered by the imaginations of your team and that well-paid futurist who spoke at your executive off-site.

That means we’re all in virgin territory. There is no AI “Best Practices” booklet just yet, no McKinsey 7 steps you need to ruthlessly follow. Ergo we’re all experimenting, piloting, crafting MVP’s and establishing AI sandboxes to “test, learn and reapply” as P&G famously says.

And we’re likely failing too.

Hopefully you’re learning and getting better but there is a significant chance your first AI attempts will not get you the outcomes you initially sought.

So, if experimenting and, more importantly, failing is not something your organization is comfortable with, you’re in trouble. If your organizational risk tolerance is in single digits, then the next several months (even years) are going to be incredibly uncomfortable for your executives and your culture.

Questions to ask yourself ...

Does our culture have an established process for experimentation? Are we comfortable with failing and how are those who “fail” treated within our organization — as pioneers or as pariahs? How easy is it to secure funding or executive sponsorship for something we’ve never done before? Do we regularly do PAR (Post Action Reports) like the military where the focus is on learning what went wrong and not with finding blame? What do we do with those learnings? Are they pored over and used to refine the next attempt, or do we hide them away hoping they don’t resurface around Bonus Time?

Does your culture encourage constant learning and curiosity?

Another emerging opinion is that the AI journey will fundamentally change the fabric of business and society forever. The implication being that to survive and thrive the critical mindset to adopt is one of adaptability.

What will power that new enterprise mindset?

Curiosity and continual enterprise-wide L&D is the obvious answer.

Curiosity to imagine an entirely different organization than the one you currently operate. Curiosity to question how you serve customers today and how you might serve — and source — them differently in the future. Curiosity to examine your current competitive set and wonder if your future competitors will come from entirely different geographies, new industries or unique service offerings. Curiosity to explore what are your organization's blind spots and sacred cows and how your present ways of working are an Achilles Heel.

Nurturing, curating and collating the beautiful outcomes of all that fevered curiosity is where the L&D piece becomes so critical. What are the mechanisms you have to do that? What is the L&D investment you’re making today? Where is that investment going and into whom?

Sadly, business history has shown that L&D at most organizations is a discretionary endeavor. Well-funded when the organization is doing well, the first budget line to get slashed when the corporate belt needs tightening. The prevailing AI wisdom is that curiosity and L&D is going to be critical in the decades ahead as that is the only way organizations will be able to stay competitive.

Put more simply, organizations that can nurture and harness the creativity of their people will see new opportunities, create new opportunities and seize new opportunities faster than their competitors.

Questions to ask yourself ...

Do we genuinely appreciate employees who are curious and ask questions? Do we invest in those employees and positively reinforce their curiosity? How do we react to those questions — openly, honestly or dismissively? Do we invest real time and sizable budget on a sustained basis to infuse that curiosity across the organization? How far would we go to protect that sustained L&D investment?

Does your culture see employees as a resource or an asset?

Uncomfortable question but there is no denying that the immediate promise of AI is reducing or eliminating repetitive tasks across the enterprise. Have a 500-person call center to answer a recurring number of similar customer queries? Build a multi-language chatbot and launch that on your website. Have a few interns poring over legal precedents to develop your argument for an upcoming trial? Task AI to craft your opening and give you a list of applicable precedents for your jurisdiction. Struggling to build out a set of policies for your organization with your in-house team? Prompt ChatGPT to give you the framework and language and have a working policy in minutes that formerly took weeks.

Those examples are very real, and while not always successful as a lawyer famously learned, they reflect the obvious opportunity areas where AI is being positioned as the solution.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

The question being what happens to the humans currently doing that work? The humans currently in colleges and universities planning careers and lives around that work? How about the government taxes presently earned from those employees doing that work?

These are meaty questions that don’t have simple answers.

In one of my favourite HBR podcasts on AI and Productivity, Harvard Professor Karim Lakhani makes the poignant point that our standard response in business is to look for “efficiencies” which typically means removing things from our processes. The “things” that we then remove are typically humans.

His larger point is that AI offers the real possibility to augment and enhance our humans, not eliminate them. To multiply their potential, not remove them from the process entirely.

Questions to ask yourself ...

Are our people resources that we use and discard or assets we invest in deeply and purposefully? Do we see AI as a workforce reduction or a workforce amplification? Can it be both? Are we scouring the enterprise to find more ways to unlock our people and their creativity? Can we strip the bloat and bureaucracy that is often the bottleneck for our people? Can AI be the solve for those challenges? Do we believe we have a moral obligation to make our people, our future employees, knowledgeable and competent to work alongside AI?

These are heady questions, but they are ones we can’t ignore as we barrel towards an AI-infused society.

The other aspect to consider as you reflect on these questions is this.

Your “culture” has a vote in this too. Remember the part in the earlier definition about “make decisions”? Well, every day the humans inside your organization are making decisions about where to put their energy, their focus, their creativity and their passion. So, if you don’t think they’re watching for signs about how you’re looking at AI, how it’s getting deployed and the direct impact on them, you’re gravely mistaken.

If, like me, you believe that culture is your ultimate competitive advantage then how you infuse AI into that culture is going to be one of the most urgent and profound decisions you make in the years ahead.

So, do you believe your culture is ready for the AI future?

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