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Brainstorm: AI in the business driving seat

The spread of smart technologies like AI across organisations is being driven by the seeking of competitive advantage, but are senior leaders prepared for the impact?

By Johan Steyn February 2022

Organisations leading in the adoption of AI and smart technologies are implementing it across core business functions and into full production. The key to the successful rollout of these new-breed technology platforms is a high degree of senior-level leadership engagement and sponsorship. But they will have to be cognisant of the potential impact it will have on their own positions.

The ‘always-on work’ mentality and advanced analytics have led many to question the role of the company executive. According to the ‘Work 2035’ report by Citrix, a third of respondents think senior corporate leaders will be ‘partially or completely replaced’ by technology over the next few years. More than 70% of those surveyed believe that most companies will have a central AI department in the future, and nearly 69% believe that the CEO will work with a ‘chief of artificial intelligence’ in that time frame.

Kristian J. Hammond’s article 'Please don’t hire a chief artificial intelligence officer’ in the Harvard Business Review argues that the 'very nature of the role aims at bringing the hammer of AI to the nails of whatever problems are lying around’. He states that a focus on AI as an exclusive role in the executive will increase the focus on the technology and may erode the focus on the business strategy.

I tend to agree with Hammond. In my experience, consulting with large enterprise businesses in the local market, there often seems to be a lack of understanding about the nature and application of smart technology. Many leaders don’t comprehend the new wave of innovative, autonomous platforms, and therefore – true to human nature – fear or tend to ignore it. Those who are more positive in their outlook seem to look to AI as a fix-it-all solution to fundamental business challenges.

AI should be used to improve human thinking rather than replace it. We must therefore begin discussing how companies operate and, more crucially, the way they will be managed in the future. Leading organisations are focused on creating a data-driven culture with senior-level leaders empowered by insights-driven decision-making tools. Top executives will be under increased pressure as AI filters up the leadership chain, democratising access to high-quality information and decision-making tools for everyone.

Analytical abilities

If anything, AI is going to change the talents needed to be a good leader. AI's capacity to rapidly translate large amounts of data into workable answers for complicated strategic dilemmas will be continually used by organisational leaders. AI will enable leaders to consider questions they previously couldn't or wouldn't have dared to ask since the answers were too complex to attain. As more top executives use AI to guide their contributions to company strategy, this influence will grow across the whole C-suite.

The smart technology era will usher in a new period of leadership, not just add another layer of complexity to the technology stack. Rather than amassing knowledge, leaders will need analytical abilities as well as the capacity to inspire people rather than exert control over them. They will use AI to create a long-term strategy for the company rather than a short-term one. In the C-suite, team competencies and technological savvy will take precedence over individual personalities.

Writing in his personal capacity, Johan Steyn is a smart automation and AI thought leader and management consultant, working at PwC, and is chair of the IITPSA’s Special Interest Group on AI and Robotics.


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