How can leaders bring an AI strategy into their future plans?

24 Feb 2021

Image: © Sondem/

The new organisational structure needs specific understanding of AI technology and capability by informed leaders, writes Barry Guiney.

AI is a game changer. It demands a very different approach to any preceding digital evolution, in strategy, implementation and in your human resource management. Leaders in all areas of an organisation need to be informed and involved.

AI is no longer emerging; it is being adopted widely as an essential tool of corporate competitiveness. In September 2020, despite the impact of the pandemic, a Gartner poll showed 47pc of artificial intelligence investments had not changed and 30pc of companies polled planned to increase funding for AI.

The delivery of results is still slow, however. In October 2019, an MIT Sloan Management Review and Boston Consulting Group survey found that seven out of 10 companies reported “minimal or no impact of AI”.

Odgers Berndtson’s recent report about AI for boards suggests this might be to do with their leaders rather than AI.

A different breed of technology than digital transformation, AI’s ability to substantially change opportunities, risks, people skills and more is vast. New learning is paramount to guide your AI programme effectively.

The role of HR in your AI strategy

New processes could create crossover among traditional roles and responsibilities and therefore have strong implications on an organisation’s structure. Foreseeing this new structure requires a good understanding of the implications of AI technology and it will be mandatory that your C-suite develops this capability.

AI will create a surge in the need for new skills, such as in data science and machine learning. A company’s CHRO must be competent in defining new or changed role profiles to incorporate AI capabilities that will form part of a comprehensive AI strategy.

Aware of the scarcity in AI talent, a human resources development plan must design a specific acquisition strategy. A distinct working culture needs to work hard to retain and further develop skills among its teams.

To keep talent eager and loyal, a company that is ambitious in AI will have state-of-the-art infrastructure and computing power, access to rich datasets, challenging projects, clear career paths and AI goals that are aligned with their technology roadmap.

Never before has the CHRO’s remit been so closely woven with that of the CEO, and indeed the CFO. Defining decisions will demand mutuality of purpose and alignment of vision among these leaders.

Infuse AI into every area of the business

Rather than resourcing and delegating control to the relevant business unit, as was the case with previous iterations of tech advancement, AI is pervasive throughout your business.

It requires close collaboration among different teams in your company. This demands hands-on steering from the executive team – in particular, the CEO – continuously. When this direction is informed and skilled, the benefits can be outstanding.

AI’s speed and scale are unprecedented. It can have enormous consequences, beneficial and detrimental. The slightest inaccuracy or bias can translate into huge liabilities.

When designing an executive team or choosing your CEO, it’s critical to ensure candidates have, with specific industry expertise, a deep understanding of how AI can make systems more productive, more resilient and more sustainable.

Leaders need to be knowledgeable and decisive on things like the interpretation of results, scaling AI, bias, risk and ethics. Reassuringly, PwC recognises that: “Regardless of your starting point, you don’t need a PhD in the subject, more like a working knowledge of the full range of potential applications and the different development paths (such as capabilities built in-house, partnerships, acquisitions and licensing).”

According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the biggest mistakes leaders make is to view AI as a plug-and-play technology with immediate returns. AI cannot be delegated or nodded to with fancy hires or titles.

CEOs who are serious about utilising AI need to step back and view all aspects of their businesses through an AI lens.

Is your CEO committed to AI?

With a rounded vision of the capabilities of applied AI, a CEO who is openly committed to AI can infuse in company culture an expectation of a future manifested through its benefits.

As a leader, authentic behaviour and demonstrated priorities place AI foremost in business strategy. Team leaders take these cues and feel supported in addressing resistance to change, more easily bringing their members on the AI journey.

Companies with AI-driven business models are already striving for industry dominance and can see their path to it. This will not be achieved through incremental changes, but with deep and broad technical understanding and a clear vision of possibilities and potential.

Competitive strategy must be built on alertness to new business opportunities and also threats. Nothing opens more new horizons, directions and markets than well-applied AI.

Even the most sophisticated tech players have proven unprepared for ethical challenges posed by AI. CEOs need enough insight to be able to balance its speed and scale with measurability and re-engineering; to interpret data, understand their potential and foresee consequences. Nuances in simple ethical rules can become amplified and need responsible judgement to remain inside ethical, legal and regulatory requirements.

By Barry Guiney

Barry Guiney is a partner at talent consultancy firm Odgers Berndtson in Ireland. He has more than 20 years’ senior executive experience in the technology sector.