Optimizing AI strategy: The coach-player role of talent and HR leaders

Talent leaders’ unique perspective and leadership are essential for organizations to fully leverage the potential of AI on a large scale.

AI transformation requires involving a variety of stakeholders, who are usually led by chief technology officers or chief data officers in managing AI initiatives along with other important stakeholders. Whether the goal is to lower costs, speed up execution, streamline processes or create innovation, it’s clear that AI projects often demand major changes in business processes, as well as the adoption of new skills, roles and organizational structures – all making HR and talent leaders crucial stakeholders in shaping the AI journey.

Why is this the case? Companies can only optimize the value and business impact of AI if they take a comprehensive approach. They need to view AI strategy as a whole to achieve full maturity. For instance, Accenture has identified four capability groups that encompass “foundational” and “differentiation” AI capabilities, which are indispensable for attaining AI maturity. One of these capability groups is talent and culture, which is considered a differentiation capability, meaning it can give companies a competitive edge rather than merely matching their competitors. BCG emphasizes that while every company’s AI journey is unique, the ones that are leaders at scale typically allocate 70 percent of their AI effort to business and people transformation.

HR and talent leaders play a significant role in this process, in a player-coach capacity. At the core of this dual role lies the intersection between technology and talent.

HR and talent leaders as “players”

As part of AI working groups alongside engineers, data scientists, legal experts and executives, HR leaders offer a unique viewpoint. They advocate for employees’ interests and aspirations amid technological advancements. With their expertise in talent management, organizational development and employee engagement, HR professionals play a vital role in strategically guiding AI initiatives.

In their capacity as players, HR leaders contribute to technical discussions by providing insights into the human aspects of AI implementation. They collaborate closely with diverse teams to ensure that AI projects are not only technically feasible but also ethical and socially responsible.

What is HR’s role in the AI discovery? 

  • Use case identification: HR leaders can leverage their expertise in talent management, organizational development and employee engagement to identify potential use cases.
  • Case selection and prioritization: HR and talent leaders can participate in the selection and prioritization of AI use cases. They consider factors such as business impact, feasibility, scalability and alignment with organizational goals.
  • Prioritization framework: HR leaders should contribute to the development of prioritization frameworks for AI investments and resource allocation. Working with cross-functional teams, they can define criteria, weightings and scoring mechanisms to ensure objective and data-driven decision-making. 

How does it work in real life?  

In a recent example from Walmart, Donna Morris, the chief people officer, recognized the pivotal role of technology in shaping the employee experience. She integrated the people product team into the HR organization, empowering them with greater autonomy and agility during the AI discovery phase. By collaborating closely with engineers, data scientists, designers and business experts, the people product team translated their vision into reality to benefit Walmart’s associates and business.

In another instance, a talent leader at a major pharmaceutical company established and led a GenAI Learning Lab. This initiative involved organizing a hackathon for rapid and agile experimentation. It helped identify and prioritize the company’s GenAI capabilities while also giving top talent an opportunity to showcase their skills and leadership potential. The GenAI Learning Lab was proven to be an effective tool for employee retention and engagement.

These examples highlight the value of HR and talent leaders as integral members of cross-functional AI discovery teams. They bring diverse perspectives and insights, contributing to the success of AI initiatives across the organization.

HR and talent leaders as “coaches”  

At the same time, HR leaders also serve as cultural leaders, promoting activities that cultivate a work environment conducive to AI adoption. They recognize that successful AI implementation entails more than just technology; it also relies on organizational culture. HR professionals establish the framework by advocating for values like innovation, agility and continuous learning. They spearhead cultural change initiatives, integrating AI readiness into the organization’s identity and empowering employees to embrace change and foster innovation.

The war for digital talent

In a highly competitive AI landscape, organizations need to plan ahead on how to recruit talent. Some organizations work with specialized AI recruiters, customizing hiring processes and pay packages to suit the demands of AI talent. Others ensure that they clearly communicate their data strategy to AI candidates, highlighting potential growth opportunities.

For example, let’s consider a global financial organization. The people leader in this organization evaluated and improved their approach to recruiting and hiring AI talent. They revised their employee value proposition to emphasize the non-technical benefits offered by the company, such as the opportunity to contribute to the organization’s mission and participate in corporate social responsibility initiatives. Additionally, the company encountered a challenge with the hiring process for digital talent, as candidates often accepted other offers before a decision could be made. To address this issue and expedite the hiring process for AI talent, they streamlined their procedures. Furthermore, to enhance the engagement of new hires, they implemented new onboarding practices designed to facilitate immediate connections between AI employees and AI-trained leaders.

Digital skills or skills for the digital world  

As skills undergo unprecedented disruption, HR and talent leaders are developing and expanding their training programs, creating effective reskilling and upskilling strategies for technology skills, to optimize business performance. Considering that AI skills encompass a broad range of competencies, these upskilling programs go beyond mere technical know-how. They also include abilities such as critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability and collaboration in digital environments.

In a recent interview with the World Economic Forum, an IKEA talent leader discussed how their HR and L&D team is supporting the business through the AI Literacy initiative, which aims to reskill and upskill 3,000 coworkers and 500 leaders within the organization. The pilot phase of this initiative focuses on individuals with some AI and data knowledge, as they are better equipped to understand the benefits of AI. However, the program will eventually scale to include the company’s entire workforce.

Similarly, a global company in the food and beverage sector recognizes the importance of developing other complementary skills alongside AI to maintain the human touch. These skills include critical and creative thinking, emotional and social skills and a mindset of curiosity and lifelong learning. The company’s goal is to embrace digital and AI from both technical and mindset perspectives. The HR team collaborates closely with the business to achieve this dual focus.

The takeaway

In conclusion, HR leaders play a crucial dual role as both players and coaches in embracing AI. As players, they actively contribute to cross-functional teams, ensuring human-centric approaches and providing valuable insights. Meanwhile, as coaches, they lead company-wide initiatives that focus on AI fluency, upskilling and cultivating a supportive culture. Their unique perspective and leadership are essential for organizations to fully leverage the potential of AI on a large scale.