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BusinessDay: Getting C-suites ready for AI

A report found that only 41% of executives felt they had a good understanding of artificial intelligence.


By Johan Steyn, 27 June 2023


Organisations that want to thrive in the era of artificial intelligence (AI) must ensure their C-suite leaders are adequately prepared to navigate the challenges and leverage the opportunities it presents.


In my consulting work, I have often seen how senior execs simply outsource the business strategy around the most powerful technology humans have ever created to the dark corners of their IT departments. Their technologists will want to “AI everything” while there is often no strategic alignment or even common sense involved.


According to the World Economic Forum, 63% of senior executives consider a lack of understanding and skills among their workforce as a challenge in adopting AI technologies. A report by the Industrial Development Corporation highlighted that 25% of organisations face challenges due to misalignment between business and IT executives’ expectations regarding AI projects.


In a survey by Deloitte, 30% of executives stated that their organisations had difficulty managing AI projects due to unclear business objectives. And McKinsey found that only 41% of executives felt they had a good understanding of AI and its implications. I am not aware of similar studies in our local market but in my experience, I estimate that the number could be as low as 20%.


Why are executives so wary of AI technologies? My view is it is because they are influenced by technology vendors and specialists who fail to make it simple. I read somewhere that if you are not able to explain a difficult concept in simple terms, there is a good chance that you yourself also do not really understand it.


To harness the potential of AI effectively, C-suite leaders must evaluate their organisation’s goals carefully and identify specific areas where AI can drive value and competitive advantage. Whether it’s streamlining operations, enhancing customer experiences, or uncovering new revenue streams, a well-defined AI strategy is crucial. This strategy ensures that investments in AI are purposeful and aligned with the organisation’s long-term vision.


The journey towards AI implementation can be expedited by forging strategic partnerships with AI experts and technology vendors. These partnerships enable organisations to leverage shared knowledge, minimise implementation challenges, and capitalise on external perspectives. Leaders should, however, not follow the guidance of experts blindly. They need to have enough knowledge to see through the consultant-speak.


One of the critical factors in AI readiness is the availability of skilled professionals who can navigate the complexities of AI technologies and drive these initiatives forward. However, the demand for AI talent in our market vastly outstrips supply. Therefore, the C-suite must collaborate with HR departments to attract top AI talent and develop robust recruitment strategies. Providing ongoing training and development opportunities for existing employees is essential for nurturing a talent pool equipped with the necessary skills.


Successful AI implementation requires a cultural transformation within the organisation. The C-suite plays a crucial role in fostering a culture that embraces AI. Leaders must lead by example and champion a culture of innovation, collaboration and experimentation. This involves encouraging employees at all levels to embrace AI technologies, promoting cross-functional collaboration to leverage diverse perspectives, and creating an environment that supports risk-taking and learning from failures.


The era of exponentially powerful technologies is forcing us to rethink business leadership. I am saddened to witness that our local business schools are ignoring these trends or at the most paying lip service to the need for AI-ready leaders in the near future.


• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University and founder of AIforBusiness.net.

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