Notes from the field: Senior leaders discuss the impact of AI on culture

Roundtable discussions are a great way to connect. When we get together, special things happen: we share our ideas, learn from each other and build relationships.

The adoption of generative AI (GenAI) tools into our daily work tasks and routines is accelerating the pace of change in today’s world of work. From writing to design to routinized tasks, GenAI offers seemingly infinite ways to extend our creativity and capacity.

This isn't the first technological leap we've seen where organizations, their leaders and employees recognize the potential of new technology to give them an advantage. Typewriters. Personal computers. Mobile experiences. Augmented reality. However, GenAI feels like a new flavour of technological innovation.

What makes it different (and potentially more uncomfortable for some) is that its adoption is less containable than past evolutions. Guaranteed, whether you have a strategy for GenAI at your organization or not, it is being used. And that usage of GenAI represents a massive change to our workplace ecosystem and to our culture.

People dictate how we use the technology and culture determines how smart they'll be about it.
SY Partners

We gathered organizational leaders in our latest roundtable to discuss the impact of GenAI on culture, as well as the impact of culture on GenAI. This post represents the highlights of those conversations. It’s not an exhaustive analysis of the state of GenAI in organizations; rather, it’s a temperature check from a group of leaders we know and trust.

Readiness for AI

Readiness and change

Organizations we spoke with sit on a spectrum of readiness for GenAI. Some are more comfortable while others expressed feeling anxious. No one is claiming to be "ready," given that the technology and its potential impacts are changing week-by-week. These leaders acknowledge that the most crucial factor in the journey to readiness is to acknowledge that GenAI represents a higher level of continuous disruption and change than even in the recent past. To be successful, it’s critical to focus on meeting employees where they are and guiding them through the employee experience changes that GenAI adoption can create. We need to help both leaders and employees understand the new deal and what’s in it for them in this workplace evolution.

Strategic approach

The organizations that lean more towards readiness have some things in common:

  • They started out doing experiments contained to technical teams and then evolved them into strategic considerations and applications.
  • They developed positions or policies from legal, ethical and people perspectives and are embedding GenAI into business process. These strategic guardrails are a mark of maturity in thinking and provide a framework for current and emergent needs.

Leaders set the stage for GenAI

Setting a vision for employees

The CEO or CIO’s actions and point of view on GenAI can deeply influence whether it’s perceived as a threat or an opportunity by an organization's workforce:

  • A leader who positions GenAI as a tool to amplify human potential and encourages experimentation with guardrails sets a tone of opportunity and inspiration.
  • A leader who avoids addressing the potential impact of GenAI may generate worry or fear among employees (hampering innovation and agility) or worse, send experimentation underground and out of (over)sight.

Leaders set the tone to see GenAI as a tool that augments their employees’ work, not as a colleague to compete with or as simply a replacement or cost savings.

Prioritizing investment in GenAI

Despite the eagerness to jump into the benefits of these tools, leaders recognized that they face competing business priorities and a lack of prioritization for GenAI. Each organization must determine its appetite for allocating effort to understanding risk while investing right-sized time, energy, and resources to fully realize its potential benefits. Prioritizing investment in GenAI (from licensing to resourcing) is both a cost and an opportunity. For every organization, this value proposition is different – there is no cut and paste solution.

Gap in understanding for leaders

It’s apparent that there is a gap in GenAI literacy among leaders within organizations. It would be impossible to create a perfect curriculum for leaders that wouldn’t be out of date by the time it was delivered. What’s needed is a shift in thinking, from a traditional model of “training” to one of “sparking ideas.” This is embodied by a mindset of:

  • Experimentation – Self-directed and within teams.
  • Community – Learning from others in your organization (i.e. a cross-functional AI Council) or field (i.e. professional association).
  • Communication – Sharing learnings, both expected and unexpected, continuously.

This shift to a continuous learning mindset will help leaders feel more confident in understanding the broad potential of the technology while enabling their teams to dive more deeply into exploration.

Culture and values

Inclusion and bias with GenAI

The discussion around bias in GenAI was a hot topic at the roundtable. People acknowledged that models built on non-representative voices and data can further reinforce biased decisions; however, the group acknowledged that humans, too, are biased, and that it’s each organization’s and individual’s responsibility to train their GenAI tools to correct for bias and use clear examples that result in better outputs. An example given was to feed the AI with several diverse job descriptions that represent examples of unbiased, representative language to generate new job descriptions that also contain this standard. However, this type of system output requires intentional effort and continuous training to keep bias at bay.

How GenAI fits in your culture

In decision-making moments (when your values come into play), organizations need to have laid the groundwork for employees to be confident in knowing where and how to use AI in a way that is safe and aligned with your purpose and values, and where it is not.

Organizations may need to develop light policies or strict ones, depending on their needs. For example, an employee may need to know where their organization stands on using GenAI and its impact on protecting IP, confidentiality, and implications for operating in a regulated environment.

Organizations need to create a throughline for employees, connecting the dots on how GenAI can support “the way you do things” in a way that feels right for the culture.

Setting expectations

GenAI prompts a new paradigm of professionalism

Many people are still naive about what GenAI can and cannot do. GenAI does not just create solutions; it requires creative people to craft the prompts and inputs, train the AI, refine, shape and validate all that it can output. Rather than expecting GenAI to do all the work, there was a lot of support for the perspective of GenAI augmenting human potential and powering a different way of working – not replacing human people.

GenAI is also triggering a shift of paradigm, from defining professionalism as the act of writing every single word in a report to using new tools to define the report, validate the generative output and refine the content. Both solve the problem and are professional; however, one is taking advantage of new tools. No one today would consider someone using a typewriter, a calculator or Google to be a cheater or unprofessional, and we expect that GenAI will eventually fall into this same tool/aid mindset.

Where GenAI can have a significant impact

While it is a realistic expectation that GenAI can reduce some of your work's burden, the end product is still your work as an employee. One participant quantified this by saying that the “bottom 40% of any job description should be supported by AI.” Examples from the discussion included offloading administrative tasks, tracking to-dos, and prompting (reminders about goals or progress on OKRs). There was some discussion about the opportunity that this creates in shifting mindsets from a productivity perspective (doing the tasks) to creating outcomes (recognizing value or impact). Imagine the benefit of reducing line managers’ administrative burdens, thus enabling more meaningful connection with teams. For example, managers could use GenAI in performance evaluations to write the report based on manager input so that they can use their available time to focus on development with their team. Or, shifting customer service representatives to more complex support scenarios because of GenAI’s resolution of lower tier needs. Organizations will need a people strategy to recognize and repurpose these productivity gains as benefits to their work (not threats to their existence). It’s essential for employers to help their workforce understand what’s in it for them and the organization.

GenAI and culture: partners in change

It was clear from our discussions that GenAI and culture impact each other. While the story is still being written as to the success of GenAI, it’s clear there is significant potential to rethink how we work, our focus on value creation and the new deal at work.

While the technology is new, and the potential is enormous, GenAI represents change. While we are navigating the meteoric pace of GenAI’s technological evolution, we do know that responding to the future of work requires the same critical ingredients to be successful: being intentional, adaptive and experimental; being thoughtful about the impact on what matters, and most importantly, being empathetic with the humans at the centre of this change.  

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