Thornton May

Your AI journey: Destined for the ditch?

Aug 29, 20235 mins
Artificial IntelligenceDigital TransformationGenerative AI

The rapid rise of artificial intelligence expectations has IT leaders at a crossroads — whether they know it or not. Those who choose value creation over narrative now will better control their company’s AI destination.

Healthy young man and a woman hiking  and enjoying the view from the top of King Creek Ridge, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada on a bright sunny day. Back packing in the Canadian Rockies.
Credit: Angelito de Jesus / Shutterstock

Every organization is on an AI journey. Some don’t know they are. Others don’t want to leave home. Very few have a map or a mutually agreed upon destination. And only a tiny fraction have the appropriate shoes.

That’s the current state of AI at Global 2000 enterprises, whose behavior set thus far in the AI space appears to be designed more to avoid embarrassment than to maximize value creation.

For IT leaders who find themselves in this situation, and that’s most of you, it’s time to focus less on “managing the narrative” around AI and more on capturing the value associated with this important technology. And that begins with incubating “create value with AI” habits throughout the enterprise.

Today’s AI narrative

At the “The Two Faces of AI” Digital Solutions Gallery hosted by the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, I asked the 100-plus executives in attendance, “Is your organization ‘normal’ with regards to its treatment of AI?” Forty-six percent said their organizations were normal, another 46% said they “did not know,” and 8% said they were not normal.

The question is intentionally vague, and putting aside for a moment whether seeking to be “normal” is an appropriate strategic goal, it’s worth unpacking the elephant in the room: At this moment, our industry does not know what “normal” is regarding the driving technology of the age.

Every executive I spoke with had just come from “briefing their board” about artificial intelligence. As an investor and customer, I am very interested in who exactly is briefing the board and what is the content of that briefing.

The subjects covered in most board briefings are: What are we doing, where are we headed, and what are our competitors doing? Boards need to be assured that organizations are spending enough and moving quickly enough. There appears to be a deep level of FOMO, aka fear of missing out, in the AI space. In previous moments of technological discontinuity, boards were concerned about being “Amazoned” or “Ubered.” I have not heard of a board lamenting over being “ChatGPTed” yet.

Ursula Cottone, chief data officer at Huntington National Bank, asked ChatGPT to give her team the outline for presenting AI to the board. It came up with a great outline which they shared with the board. It was an interesting way to be able to show the board of directors what this technology can do.

There is a narrative component to the AI journey. At the top there is what is the board being told. On another level there is what are we telling stakeholders. Just about every communication with investors — e.g., the annual report, investor days, or earnings reports — now includes information about AI. CEO Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan’s May 22 investor day talked about AI spending, use cases (over 300 in production), and benefits realized and expected (more than $1 billion).

Pivoting to value

AI — which comes in many shapes and sizes — is a powerful tool. Guru Vasudeva, SVP and CIO of infrastructure and operations at Nationwide Insurance, is a gifted communicator advocating that one has to use the right tool for the right task. Generative AI is not the right tool for many tasks.

Cardinal Health, a Fortune 14 company with revenue around $181 billion in 2022, has pulled together a cross-functional team drawn from leaders across the business — sales, operations, and finance — as well as technology experts. Recognizing that ideas for AI use cases are popping up every hour in every area of the enterprise, Cardinal Health created a central collection point and process to funnel the AI demand signal. Opportunities are assessed according to strategic priorities for customers and then run through a classic business case evaluation.

I teased the impressive executive overseeing this operation, Jerome Revish, SVP of digital and commercial technologies, that Cardinal Health should change his title to Designated Adult In the Room or perhaps CCSO, Chief Common Sense Officer.

Embracing the journey

During a practicum workshop, we asked executives, “What is the biggest obstacle to your organization realizing full value from AI?” We surfaced a wide variety of obstacles. Everyone agreed that “data was an obstacle.”

Malcolm Frank, formerly chief strategy officer and president at Cognizant, now CEO at TalentGenius and author of What to Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data,embraced the metaphor of the AI journey and explained that while we may not know the exact path our AI road trip might take; nor what weather we might encounter, we do know that we will need good boots. Boots are to hiking the Appalachian trail what data mastery is to your AI journey — a foundational element.

With the objective of “practicing safe AI,” enterprises are being quite creative establishing “AI petting zoos” where employees can come to better understand what AI can and can’t do, as well as its associate risks, by enabling them to experiment hands-on in a controlled environment. Online courses and focused AI hackathons are important way stations on the AI journey.

It’s high time to map out yours.

Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

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