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It’s good to talk: How organisations can allay AI anxiety

(Image credit: Image Credit: Computerizer / Pixabay)

There is no doubt that we are in an era of massive technological change and we currently find ourselves in a transformational period in human history. The digital economy has transformed many aspects of modern life; from automated and more efficient business processes to the way we communicate and shop as well as major advances in sectors like production, mobility and healthcare.

In recent years, Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular, has come of age and now holds the power to completely redefine the world of work. It is playing an increasingly central role in the digital transformation of many organisations, enabling them to automate many dull, repetitive tasks and thus allowing workers to focus on more creative work that actually adds business value.

Many business leaders are, of course, excited by this prospect and, with global business value derived from AI forecast to reach $3.9 trillion in 2022, it’s increasingly being recognised as an organisational priority.

Problematic dialogues

Yet, while many tech-savvy members of the board extol the myriad benefits of the AI revolution, employees often feel differently. Recent research found that 48 per cent of employees fear that disruptive technology will trigger possible redundancies in their industry, and 38 per cent feel that it might cost them their jobs.

An unfortunate side effect of this fear can be a general lack of enthusiasm for an AI implementation in their own organisation, causing projects to be potentially delayed or even fail completely - a major issue for companies hoping to embrace the digital era. Therefore, it is vital for the C-Suite to understand that the language they use with regards to AI can bring a sense of job insecurity and executives should look to remedy that with transparency and clarity.

Communicating change with clarity

Anxious employees, working in fear of a ‘tech takeover’, demonstrate exactly why businesses must communicate their AI implementations in a clear and empathic manner. It’s by being fully transparent that organisations can alleviate anxiety and increase employee buy-in. Here are four key elements that are vital for companies to remember in order to communicate their future AI implementations in a sensitive and ethical way:

1.            Establishing buy-in from across the board

Given the huge organisational change and financial cost brought by an AI implementation, it is important to cement the support of the whole C-Suite – including those who aren’t tech savvy. Division on the board around the benefits of AI will further feed anxiety and concern amongst employees.

This is particularly important considering that it’s the whole board who are likely to decide on and oversee the use of AI solutions across the business. A successful AI implementation should start with clear, open-ended discussions with those members of the C-Suite who aren’t convinced of the benefits, and map out the how, when, where and why intelligent technologies are to be deployed.

2.            Maintaining transparency

The success of an AI implementation within an organisation also depends on how it is communicated to an organisation’s employees. Business executives must clearly explain what type of AI is being used, what its purpose is, its benefit, and how it will affect staff. This should also cover how it will change the day-to-day running of business operations. Sharing this information with employees ahead of the planned implementation will allow those with concerns to share their queries and seek the reassurance they need in order to support it.

3.            Augment or automate?

Communicating how AI will augment and not replace workers will also play a large role in reducing anxiety around AI. Given the numerous fear-mongering narratives, organisations must remember to emphasise that automating elements of employees’ daily roles will improve their jobs, not eliminate them.

Showing how other organisations have implemented AI and how their staff have benefited will help to demonstrate the real-life benefits brought by automation.

An example of this can be seen in the recent implementation of our digital AI assistant, Amelia, in the Switzerland-based hospitality management school École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL). The leadership team ran a proof of concept project to provide on-site IT support by managing guest Wi-Fi access and resetting passwords for staff and students. The project showed that, instead of replacing the IT helpdesk, Amelia was actually taking on the boring, time-consuming jobs that people didn’t like doing and thus freeing up their time for more complex and interesting tasks that provide business value for the school. The project was such a success that the employees themselves became the biggest advocates of the technology and demanded a much wider roll-out of Amelia across the organisation.

4.            Talk about training

When introducing a technology that is able to automate a large proportion of people’s work, opening up honest and transparent conversations about re-skilling should be firmly at the top of an organisation’s agenda, as people look to use their extra time to provide increased business value.

Success will require first developing a roadmap map for how technology will change the skill requirements within a company – both from the perspective of what will be needed vs. no longer needed – and understanding how this will impact their existing workforce.

Most businesses will need to investigate re-skilling initiatives to help some employees transition into their new and adapted role. Creating a collaborative culture of re-skilling, where employees present suggestions for their next training courses, can be a great way to both help dispel fears of displacement and put staff truly in the driving seat for how they want their career to evolve. An example of this being played out well is again at EHL, where students participate in defining use cases, testing and constantly improving the school’s AI-powered digital assistant, Amelia. Meanwhile, IT staff have developed the skills and knowledge to design, build and actually implement these use cases, so, whilst Amelia carries out the more mundane tasks such as supplying Wi-Fi codes to students, the IT team can focus on driving continuous innovation for the school.

Communication and more communication

It’s only through communicating in a clear way that the rewards of AI can be reaped. In order to maximise the benefits brought by any sort of digital transformation project, organisations should begin a discourse in order to hear their workforces’ needs, fears, ideas and hopes for their future roles.

As AI revolutionises businesses across the world, it’s clear that driving ROI from any technological deployment relies on placing employees firmly at the forefront of such processes. Remember, new technologies are only as effective as those working to support their success.

Martin Linstrom, Managing Director UK&I, IPsoft