Successful AI Implementation Starts With People

Any successful AI venture depends on getting your team behind it. Here are five people issues to plan for to avoid AI implementation pitfalls.

Artificial intelligence is here, bringing with it tremendous promise for innovation and productivity. From automating simple processes to making more complex processes smarter, AI has the potential to drastically improve the way companies work. But before you rush to implement it, beware of a major issue that could derail your goals: overlooking your people.

Any successful AI venture depends on getting your team behind it, yet too many business leaders are focusing on the technology without considering the needs of their workforce. The goal of intelligent automation is not just to grow revenue and improve efficiency, but also to help people raise their potential through new opportunities and ways of working. That will only happen if you’ve thoughtfully planned for how AI will affect your people. If they’re underprepared or fearful of how intelligent automation could affect their jobs, or if you haven’t determined how AI will affect your people strategy, this change could be more chaotic than constructive.

Planning and foresight can help you avoid many of the pitfalls we’ve seen when companies introduce intelligent automation. Here are five people issues to plan for as you implement AI.

1. Prepare your people for change: For a transformation to be successful, leaders can’t simply roll out new technologies and assume people will use them. Successful transformations need cultural support. Recent PwC research found that while 90 percent of C-suite executives agree their company pays attention to people’s needs when introducing new technology, only about half (53 percent) of staff say the same. Organizations that focus only on the business case for AI, without considering how people will think, feel and behave in light of the change, may find their transformations struggling to permeate their organization.

Do this instead: Before you embark on an AI transformation, try to answer a few key questions, including: Why is this change important? How will people have to work and interact differently for this to be successful? How will I signal that I’ve made the important changes myself — and that it is OK for others to change? These questions can help identify the key skills and behaviors that will help shift the culture and prepare people for change.

We recently worked with a biotechnology corporation that wanted to make a major tech implementation and process transformation which would affect the majority of their workforce. We helped the company identify the key behaviors and skills their people would need to adapt to this new way of working and developed an implementation roadmap to help them get there. To build cultural support and prepare people, the company also held in-depth discussions and focus groups with employees and made on-site visits to gather feedback and address concerns.

2. Help people adapt: With more businesses turning to AI, there’s pressure to move quickly, but people are already fatigued by today’s lightning-fast technology changes. Adding more change without a careful plan in place to help people adapt may create confusion and resentment and damage leaders’ credibility.

Do this instead: There’s power in coherence. Change, by its very nature, can be disruptive. Creating coherence and consistency in how and when you’re rolling out changes can not only help people adapt, but also reinforce the desired changes. A systematic plan also includes having a consistent approach to communication.

3. Evaluate workplace incentives: Too often, companies don’t consider whether their current workplace incentives may impede transformation. For example, we worked with a company that tied managers’ salaries, bonuses and promotion opportunities to how many people they supervised. Naturally, those managers were wary of helping onboard AI because they believed it would reduce the number of people they were responsible for, thereby affecting their paychecks and career prospects. Their reluctance slowed the implementation process and made it more difficult for leaders to get the most out of the technology.

Do this instead: Review and revise current reward and incentive policies that run contrary to where the business needs to go, and consider creating new incentives that are tied to transformation goals. Help your people see how AI can benefit them personally so they’re more likely to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

4. Future-proof your recruiting strategy: Too many companies are still focused on hiring for what they need now and not for the skills and talents they’ll need in the future — an expensive mistake that could create a brand risk. If you hire people now, you’ll find yourself in a tough spot down the road, forced to either create new roles and retrain employees whose jobs might be displaced by automation or, even worse, lay them off and risk damaging your reputation.

Do this instead: Change your recruiting techniques now to create the workforce you’ll need in three to five years. Consider which roles may be affected by intelligent automation as well as what skills you’ll need to complement AI. Think about introducing entirely different types of talent depending on where you want the business to go and the mix of talent you’ll need — for example, moving some full-time roles to contingent.

5. Take a bottoms-up approach rather than top-down: AI is only as effective as the people who create it. Too often, organizations take a top-down approach, relying on people with technical expertise to take the lead on AI while leaving out the subject matter experts who can actually identify the opportunities for the business.

Do this instead: Engage people with the knowledge and skills to help identify the opportunities for AI. It’s going to be easier — and more cost effective — to upskill SMEs and teach them the technical aspects rather than doing the opposite.

Intelligent process automation offers enormous potential to improve the way we work. But to harness its full power and avoid costly mistakes, you’ll need to first look beyond the technology to your people.