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How HR can unlock the potential of artificial intelligence

18 Feb 2020 By Nick South and Robert Sharman

Integrating AI efforts with business strategy and hiring the right talent is key to deriving the most value from the technology, say Nick South and Robert Sharman

Companies today are dealing with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change, from geopolitical shifts to the emergence of innovative technologies and new working norms. Artificial intelligence (AI) is just one factor disrupting the workplace; however, while it’s a commonplace term in executive discussions, many are still struggling to unlock its potential. In fact, while nine out of 10 companies perceive AI as an opportunity, fewer than 40 per cent report any value driven by AI in the last three years – a stunning statistic.

Interestingly, data from a Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Reviewarticle shows that the challenges most companies face are organisational as opposed to technological, and that leaders who see AI as purely the remit of their technology functions struggle massively to derive value from their efforts.

The research analysed the strategies used by businesses that had successfully deployed and extracted meaningful value from AI. It found those able to successfully capture value from their activities recognise that AI is not all about technology. These firms all exhibit a distinct set of organisational behaviours:

  • AI strategies integrated with the overall business strategy;
  • AI efforts prioritise revenue growth over cost reduction, despite the programmes being large and often risky;
  • production of AI aligned with the consumption of it, through thoughtful alignment of business owners, process owners and expertise to ensure they adopt AI solutions effectively and pervasively;
  • AI initiatives unified with larger business transformation efforts; and
  • investment went towards AI talent, data and process change in addition to, and often more so than, the technology itself

Of these five behaviours, four are squarely about organisational alignment – AI is a strategic choice, as opposed to something for the IT department to figure out. But even with high degrees of alignment, strong leadership and strategic intent, it is actually acquiring talent and developing capabilities in AI that is becoming one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, for two main reasons:

First, AI talent is scarce, and with big tech companies competing against you to capture top talent it’s no wonder that sourcing and developing the right skillsets is an expensive endeavour. 

Second, the risk of competitors cracking the AI challenge first means companies are reluctant to rely on developing capabilities organically – they need to ‘rent’ them. However, this is hard to transform into a long-term competitive advantage, and it is expensive.

What can HR do?

Get acquainted with AI

While awareness of AI is very high, surprisingly few people truly understand what it’s about and what it can do. It’s important to familiarise ourselves with the different roles that are required and how it will need more than just scientists to unlock success. Functions and roles across the business have a part to play, from the managers who can leverage the new talent in their teams through to lawyers who are well-versed in the legal matters of AI and everything in between.

From an HR professional’s point of view it is key to understand the potential of AI along the whole hire-to-retire journey – bringing AI closer to home is an excellent education in the opportunities it can bring and the deep change it’s capable of driving.

Ensure the employee value proposition is relevant to the talent pools being targeted

AI talent is generally young, and new generations expect more from their employers than a steady income. They want to be engaged and to have the opportunity to drive impact beyond the bottom line of their employer. Putting their roles in the context of the firm’s purpose (saving lives, finding ways to reduce environmental impact, ensuring financial wellbeing, etc) is critical to attracting and retaining top performers.

Understand the full landscape of AI talent demand within the company, and be ready to prioritise

As the AI imperative gathers momentum, more and more departments will want to get on the bandwagon – the demand is only set to increase. Be prepared to think of how to aggregate the demand across the company, ensure HR business partners are actively discussing the topic with their counterparts and, furthermore, consider at an enterprise level that is the best model to incubate this talent. Should it be a centre of excellence, for example, or devolved into selected pockets of the organisation – both have advantages and disadvantages.

Ensure that where AI talent is ‘rented’, there are clear actions to ensure transferral of capability

The fact remains that most companies will ‘rent’ AI talent at some point in the journey. Ensuring there are mechanisms in place to transfer capabilities – for example, creating project teams that are a mix of in-house and external talent – will allow companies to maximise the return on investment from these often expensive engagements.

The AI race won’t be fought solely in the silicon battlefield, but it could likely be won in the talent one. The role of HR is paramount in ensuring the golden opportunities of AI are captured by their own companies and not competitors. It’s entirely possible that the race could be won well before the deployment of technology, through hiring and engaging the right people.

Nick South is managing director and partner in Boston Consulting Group’s London office, and leader of the people and organisation team in the UK. Robert Sharman is project leader, also in BCG’s London office

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