Leaders must overcome a cultural resistance to artificial intelligence

The AI-first world promises to bring about powerful opportunities and capabilities to those who embrace it early

Alfred North Whitehead, a noteworthy mathematician and philosopher throughout the industrial revolution once said that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Interestingly, even though they were made over 200 years ago, Whitehead’s comments are as relevant today as they were when they first helped shape the course of modern industrialisation.

Today, society is on the precipice of a new era of digital disruption. Powered by artificial intelligence and intelligent automation, the AI-first world promises to bring about powerful opportunities and capabilities to those who embrace it early. That’s the emerging view among business leaders.

However, while new Avanade research shows that 86% of global business leaders believe their organization must successfully deploy intelligent automation solutions in the next five years to be a leader in their field, an overwhelming majority (79%) of these business leaders agree that internal resistance to change is limiting the implementation of AI technologies in their workplace.

To overcome this barrier, leaders must start addressing the concerns of their employees now.

Changing the conversation on intelligent automation

Like previous technology advances, some jobs will go away, others will evolve and new ones will be created as a result of intelligent automation. We need not fear that machines will make humans dispensable. Research cited in the Harvard Business Review shows that despite the installation of far more robots between 1993 and 2007, Germany lost just 19% of its manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2012 compared to a 33% drop in the United States.

France and Italy also lost fewer manufacturing jobs than the United States during this period, even though they introduced more industrial robots. By contrast, countries like Australia and the United Kingdom invested less in robots over the same period, but experienced faster declines in their manufacturing sectors.

Avanade’s global research indicates a majority of business leaders recognize intelligent automation will go beyond enablement and also augment the human workforce, opening new avenues for productivity as machines process data and surface insights beyond the capacity of humans.

However, many employees remain uncertain about the shift to an AI-first world. Consumers surveyed by Avanade in the UK, US and Germany agreed with business leaders that intelligent automation will free up employees to spend more time on complex tasks, but 60% of the consumers believe intelligent automation is more likely to replace jobs.

These results highlight the need for leaders to help their teams move beyond the humans vs machines fear factor, and educate them on potential of AI technologies to create a more innovative and satisfying work environment, and train them to work alongside these new capabilities. With new technologies come new opportunities and jobs are being created that were once beyond our imagination. Who would have thought 10 years ago that drone technicians and digital ethicists would be in-demand roles today?

Leaders need to take charge now

Avanade’s research indicates that organizations that don’t implement intelligent automation by 2020 risk irrelevance, as the vast majority plan to deploy within three years. To help bring employees on the journey to an AI-first world, leaders must today start developing a roadmap to guide high-level conversations, as well as discussions across the entire workforce about the value of intelligent automation for individuals and organizations. Empathy and education will be more critical for leaders than ever before.

The new augmented workforce comprising humans and machines will also present ethical complexities for organizations, so inputs from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences will be essential to ensuring algorithms and intelligent automation continue to align with the changing expectations of customers and employees.

Sarah Adam-Gedge is managing director of Avanade Australia.

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