Human Resources

Making tomorrow: why culture matters most when it comes to AI

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Welcome to our HR Modernization Playbook: Tomorrow’s people – Why HR matters more than ever in the age of artificial intelligence. Digital transformation is happening faster than ever. The adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will redefine jobs, enhance employee productivity and accelerate workforce development. In fact, skills and culture – not technology – are the biggest barriers to business growth in the AI era. This means CEOs are looking to their CHRO to lead culture change, manage talent and drive down costs. The time to act is now: the future is already here.

Chapter 5: Making tomorrow: why culture matters most when it comes to AI

You may have noticed that, for a series about technological change, we have spent very little time discussing technology. There’s a good reason for that. Selecting and implementing a new piece of software is a relatively straightforward task. Establishing a culture that embraces and benefits from AI is another matter altogether. Scaling AI in companies is less a technological challenge and more a question of skills, culture and change management.

We’ve heard about the practical ways in which AI is going to transform the employee experience. But in this human/machine interplay, the human element is absolutely essential to getting things off the ground. After all, what’s the use of a whizzy new piece of technology if you don’t have the skills and the vision to make it perform?

In the era of AI, the most successful businesses will be those that redesign their environment and workforce around harnessing the predictive capabilities of machines. We know that AI will fundamentally alter the relationship between humans and machines, with machines becoming allies and collaborators to human innovation. This will redefine the qualities organisations look for in employees.

A learning culture

The market for talent is changing rapidly, as are the skills an organisation needs to successfully adopt new technology. As a result, learning and development is no longer a top-down process whereby employees are offered or prescribed training in order to progress to the next level of a linear career.

A culture of continuous, self-directed learning is required, with employees actively seeking any opportunity to watch, read or attend opportunities for learning. Employees must see it as their responsibility to reinvent themselves and seek out the skills to succeed. As we discussed in chapter 2, AI will enable personalised learning programmes that continuously align with personal objectives and employer needs. Organisations in turn have a responsibility to be transparent about the future skills they need employees to develop – the ‘hot skills’ which will drive their business to success in tomorrow’s world. In line with this, an ongoing, performance-based coaching culture should replace traditional annual reviews, which will become less relevant as the pace of change increases.

Agile and experimental

When asked to rank the capabilities most instrumental to success, in a recent IBV study CEOs cited “willingness to experiment” as one of the most important. An agile and experimental culture is essential to success in the AI era. Organisations cannot afford to plunge all their resources into large-scale, top-down reinvention: instead, the focus must be on rapid, iterative change through small, experimental projects that tackle specific business problems – where solutions are co-created with employees who are struggling with those very problems day to day. When those projects are successful, they should be scaled; when they are not, the team should learn from the failure and move on to something new.

This approach to work means we must rethink the employee construct to prioritise autonomy, fluid work structures and cross-team working. Perhaps above all else, speed will become the new core business competence required to succeed in these highly competitive times. Velocity will be valued more highly than perfection.

The skills to succeed

As we have touched upon above, the skills required of employees are in constant flux; your workforce must cultivate the skills to interact expertly with AI as a business tool and to work in agile, cross-functional teams. Even traditional job roles will require some sort of analytical and quantitative understanding as standard.

Despite this, soft skills will be more significant than ever in the age of AI. As machines outperform human workers at methodical, logical tasks and automate many basic processes, human skills such as emotional intelligence, influencing and creativity will be more important than ever. In any AI project, it’s important to establish the unique strengths of the machine and those of the human, and work to maintain the equilibrium. Successful businesses will foster a culture of creativity and curiosity in their people in order to harness the predictive capabilities of AI.

People first

As when any major change is on the horizon, employees may be nervous and resistant – or simply not interested; 34% of CEOs see employee inertia as cultural impediment to transformation. The way leaders within your business introduce AI will set the tone for how receptive your people are. It’s important to be transparent about what you are using and what you hope to get out of it.

It must be clear from the outset that you are using AI as a means to make the business more innovative and their roles more rewarding – not simply to cut costs by replacing people. HR leaders need to demonstrate how AI will augment human intelligence, not replace it. You need to be vocal about the professional skills you value, and how employees personally can work with AI to grow the business. Share your vision, show them where you’re headed, and open up to new ideas from all employees.

A supportive and skilled workforce is the key ingredient for success in the AI era. Forward-thinking organisations will invest at least as much in preparing their culture as they do in the software itself; the CHRO must play a central role in this effort.

As one of the first major HR organisations to adopt AI technology, IBM draws upon a wealth of hands-on experience and cross-industry expertise when working with clients to transform their talent strategies. From implementing new solutions to managing culture change and everything in between, get in touch to discuss your needs or hear about the work we’ve done.

I hope you have learned a lot about the future of HR from this series. Check back and share previous chapters, get in touch to discuss your needs, or visit our website to find out more.

Vice President - Talent & Engagement Europe

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