by Michael Zammuto

How CIOs can get buy-in for a job-destroying AI revolution

Jan 02, 20185 mins
Artificial IntelligenceIT LeadershipIT Strategy

If AI is to develop further, investment will be needed—and that will have to come from increased profitability.

artificial intelligence / machine learning / worker replacement
Credit: Thinkstock

Today the word “Luddite” describes anyone who opposes technology. The Luddites were English weavers and textile workers who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the automation of jobs in the Industrial Revolution.

The CIO job is arguably to provide data, infrastructure and tools to increase the productivity of people. Innovative technology means changes in how people do those jobs. With disruptive innovations this often means job destruction.

People largely accept this because it feels like you cannot stop progress. But also, because there was a feeling that progress will create other, often better paying jobs and we tend to remain confident that we personally benefit from all the upheaval.

Artificial intelligence and an interconnected series of other automation technologies are going to put that confidence to the test. Machine learning, robotics, IoT sensors and self-driving vehicles are just some of the technologies that can accelerate the reduction of labor and effort, even among high paying white collar and technical jobs.

The World Economic Forum predicts that over 5 million jobs will be automated by 2020. Gartner Group recently announced that they expect five hundred thousand more jobs will be created than will be eliminated by that point. But this more optimistic view is still the minority prediction. Another group of experts believes that 40% of the world’s 500 biggest companies could disappear.

AI projects have all the traditional barriers that CIOs have faced with other technologies – resistance to change, immature, complex technology, trouble aligning requirements across the organization – but have the added challenge of remarkably bad press. How do CIOs get buy in from their partners across the enterprise if they become viewed as primarily focused on technology that will destroy jobs, albeit in the name of efficiency?

Expect resistance. If your corporate culture still equates career success and influence with the size of budgets and staff, then there will be people that won’t get on board. You will not win over everyone.

If AI is to develop further, investment will be needed…and that will have to come from increased profitability. Focus on revenue generating project and projects that improve efficiency of staff before painting a vision of empty offices.

Partner with human resources early and often

Access to top talent is as critical to AI success as with any other initiative that IT owns. But HR is also an essential partner in ensuring effective communication across the enterprise and to transition people between roles. Encourage staff and management goals that encourage efficiency, quality and profits. Mangers with goals that focus on effort instead of business outcomes are much more likely to resist new technology.

Partner with HR to evaluate how you eliminate jobs. AI has the potential to shift staffing strategies for many industries fundamentally and permanently. The cost benefits can be huge and long-term. Argue to proactively reinvest some of it back into retraining and outplacement programs. Argue for more generous severance programs. It will lengthen the period for a return on your AI investments, but argue for senior leadership to look at the big picture. Your organization if people view it as being sensitive to the human impact.

Be the evangelist

Adding to the problem, the AI industry is doing a terrible job of PR. There is no single, high-profile person driving the vision for the huge benefits we will get out of AI related technologies. Instead we have celebrities like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates expressing alarm and news stories in major media outlets that reference Skynet from the Terminator films.

Stories abound about AI improving everything from medical care to customer service. There are real benefits so highlight that. Transformation is not built on technology alone. It is built on shared vision and enthusiasm. The CIOs need to paint a picture that envisions this new world. Not only is this new world inevitable, but it is also massively beneficial.

Win over key influencers across the enterprise

Get buy-in in advance of initiative from business leaders and those with organizational influence. Enlist them to help you spread the word and set the tone. Understand their goals and listen for ways to demonstrate improvements that they value and will celebrate. Leave a positive impact on employees, by giving them new job opportunities.

Do not forget to engage managers and ensure they feel good about the initiatives. Their jobs are tough, and automation is a new set of tools that will help them to do those jobs better. By handing over their mundane jobs to AI can add quality to their lives.

Manage expectations

Expectation for AI are sky high. We still need to hit the Gartner “trough of disillusionment” where difficult reality makes public opinion turn pessimistic on a technology before it matures. There will be errors and mistakes and delays. Every complex initiative has them. Keep people focused on the vision and ensure your influencers stay in line. Communicate often and share the small victories. Promise progress not immediate revolutions.

Automation is transforming many parts of our world. It is necessary, and your organization needs to be a leader. But the path will be difficult and there will be a human toll. Stay focused on communicating with people and you can lead the way without creating that new generation of Luddites.