AI and machine learning are everywhere.

Written by: Christie Coplen, consultant, Spencer Stuart, and member of AutomotiveNEXT

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning continue to capture headlines and spark questions about the future of work, the type of leaders required, and the potential implications for organizational culture.

AI and machine learning are already everywhere. Airlines and other organizations that rely heavily on planning and logistics have been using AI for a long time. The same goes for large manufacturers, financial services firms, and even utilities. Do you use Google? It’s built on machine learning relevance. AI-powered services such as chatbots and “personal shoppers” are enabling retailers to learn customer preferences as they interact with digital channels and make personalized product or service suggestions. Examples of AI’s uses abound: 1-800-flowers uses GWYN, an AI-enabled gift concierge that asks questions to learn customer preferences and suggests gift ideas; Starbucks’ “My Virtual Barista” allows customers to speak into their phone to place an order, and alerts them when a nearby location has created their drink; Kohl’s has launched a “connected clothes hanger” that displays product information on a nearby screen and can suggest how the piece might be paired with other pieces to create an outfit; and Macy’s “On Call app” “combines IBM’s Watson’s cognitive computing with location-based software to answer shoppers’ in-store questions, such as where to find a brand they’re looking for.

Technologies such as AI can be an important driver of customer experience, innovation, and operational synergies, but they are just part of the puzzle. In other words, technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. A company still needs a focused vision, forward-thinking strategy and the right people in place to incorporate technological innovation and stay apace. When it comes to AI (as with other technology and data analytics tools), start with the problem you want to solve. Rather than “wade into quicksand,” leaders should identify one to two areas where they want to make progress in the next year and focus on technologies that specifically address those issues.

Functional leaders should tap the expertise of their organization’s head of innovation (or similar) or consider bringing on an external adviser to stay on top of AI trends and assess which solutions make the most sense. Also, look to counterparts in technology and financial services companies who have been early adopters of AI for best practices and insight into what’s on the horizon. And don’t be afraid to engage with other peers to ask “What’s working for you?” or “What’s failed?” HR leaders can also implement pilot programs before committing to full-scale investments in new platforms.

The cultural implications of technological transformation
As technology advances, the cultural ramifications for companies grow increasingly significant. To stay atop new developments, well-rounded tech leaders should be conversant in cultural issues and help their companies embrace the inevitable changes and align around the benefits of the transformation. Some companies are more advanced digitally than others, so the larger the transformation the greater the effect may be on the culture. In these situations, a diagnostic assessment of a company culture can be crucial in helping the organizational culture align with the strategic vision.

Now, tech leaders must deftly navigate the perpetually shifting terrain of the technological world and evaluate how it affects their organizations. Companies must adapt quickly within this new paradigm, so cultures that are more cautious need to become more experiment-driven and failure-tolerant. Next-generation tech leaders must help their organizations adapt on the fly within a more innovative environment.

To help direct this shift, tech leaders will need to augment — or develop — new, “softer” skills, such as critical thinking and listening, as well as a highly attuned sense of culture. Tech leaders likely have the requisite technological knowledge, but succeeding in this area requires a more holistic sense of leadership.

Christie Coplen is a consultant in Spencer Stuart’s Industrial and Automotive practices, and a member of the firm’s Leadership Advisory Services team. She has extensive experience in digital and technology roles.