by Chris Curran

AI is about to open the door to a new role for CIOs: Explorer

Apr 25, 2017
Artificial IntelligenceCIOEnterprise Applications

AI’s potential extends far beyond menial tasks, and companies are now looking to leverage AI in a way that yields a competitive edge. That’s where the CIO can come in as a coach to the rest of the company, an explorer of AI and its possibilities.

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into businesses is no longer new. Task automation and chatbots are rapidly becoming the norm, cropping up across industries seeking increased efficiencies. But AI’s potential extends far beyond menial tasks, and companies are now looking to leverage AI in a way that yields a competitive edge.

That’s where the CIO can come in as a coach to the rest of the company, an explorer of AI and its possibilities. The CIO, much more than just the IT leader they were considered to be in years past, today faces an open frontier of opportunities and emerging technology to help drive transformation. In most companies, it is the CIO who is the decision-maker tasked with equipping the enterprise to both drive and deflect digital disruption. She or he is often the chief digital advocate, the chief problem-solver and the chief innovator.

Nearly three-quarters of business decision makers think AI will be the business advantage of the future, according to a new PwC surveyof 2,500 U.S. consumers and business decision makers on AI. (Disclosure: I am a principal at PwC). In the next few years we’ll see AI becoming a point of competitive advantage at or perhaps even beyond the level of other digital innovations like mobile, the cloud and Big Data.

This shift will go into overdrive as we move further into the AI era. As intelligent machines and algorithms create their own outcomes, the CIO will spend less time on maintaining and improving IT infrastructure, and instead focus on setting a course through vision, strategy and creativity. Here are a couple of ways to look at the CIO’s role in the AI age:

The CIO as explorer

Decision makers have high expectations for AI across business. In the survey, 67% of respondents said they see the future potential of AI to automate processes, and optimize business efficiency and labor productivity. But getting to that point won’t happen on its own. With AI, as with any digital transformation, the most successful implementation will be an alignment between your goals, expectations, and the most capable tools available. Finding the sweet spot where these factors meet requires vision, as well as creativity and adaptability.

More than ever, AI will put continuous learning at the center of the CIO’s role. Rather than simply evaluating the latest available tools, IT leaders must be in the mindset of proactively exploring new innovations with specific business needs in mind. The AI landscape is advancing quickly, which requires innovation in the ways companies scout new technologies. Traditional sources of learning like industry analysts, competitive intelligence, and vendors must be supplemented by resources like incubators, university labs and the open-source community.

This sense of creativity and critical thinking also must be applied inward, for IT leadership to recognize potential use cases for AI and to implement them effectively across diverse teams. CIOs must also have a discerning eye to identify areas where an AI solution may not be appropriate for their particular circumstances. For example, while the survey showed enthusiasm over turning many tasks over to AI, only 32 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable outsourcing HR management.

The CIO as coach

In the survey, business decision makers were optimistic about the potential for AI to enable more proactive approaches to business challenges, improve big data analytics, and alleviate repetitive, manual tasks. In fact, 78 percent said it will free all employees from such manual tasks at all levels across their organizations. Paperwork, scheduling, timesheets and expense reports were some of the top items that respondents were eager to outsource.

In some ways you can think of AI as a new, highly productive team member who needs to be continually managed (or coached). This team member can be incredibly effective, but not without being given the right tasks and being properly mentored and resourced. CIOs can even plan to delegate some IT functions to AI, particularly in areas like cybersecurity, helpdesk bots, and intelligent automation of system maintenance tasks.

The CIO has already become a highly strategic, connected, and visible member of most organizations’ leadership teams. The pace of digital change driven by AI will keep the CIO front and center, but this will not be the CIO of 20 years ago. As AI presents new disruptions as well as new opportunities, the CIO will be at the heart of this transformation.