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How Boards Can Intelligently Embrace AI Opportunities

In our Sideboard interview with Laura Boutell of leadership organisation Quarterdeck we discussed some of the opportunities that AI could bring to the workplace, such as removing many of the boring, repetitive jobs most people have to carry out on a daily basis. I would like to explore this aspect of automation in more detail, with a particular focus on the impact this could have on boards as they evolve their equality and people strategies.

Laura spoke candidly about the way in which many employees feel the need to demonstrate their value within a business by being either very busy or very stressed – or both. A culture of busyness has evolved over recent years and many boards would freely admit that their staff constantly feel under pressure. With this in mind, the prediction that one in five workers will have AI as their co-worker by 2022 should be welcome news.

Herein lies the biggest opportunity; business owners and senior managers have a chance to transform the culture and productivity of their business by using AI to mop up mundane tasks so that skilled employees can utilise their talents in more creative and meaningful ways. This will ultimately lead to roles being created for staff according to their skills rather than workers being pigeonholed into a job that is the closest fit to their experience to date.

Research by McKinsey suggests that this new style workplace is the most likely consequence of the AI revolution, finding that few occupations will be automated entirely. Instead, job roles will change and business processes will be redefined. The study reports that fewer than 5% of occupations can be completely automated using current technology whereas 60% of occupations could see a third or more of their activities automated.

What this means on the ground is that staff who currently spend a large proportion of their time processing information will now be able to spend more time speaking to clients, developing new skills or working on innovations for the business.

Boards can pre-empt the arrival of AI in their workplace by considering what key activities in each role could be automated to improve efficiency. Are there any processes that could be reconfigured to make use of automation? Chat bots, for example, are already being introduced in many organisations to automate routine tasks and respond to the most common customer queries.

There is a darker side to AI that I feel it is important to flag up at this point. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that 70% of the roles at greatest risk from automation are currently held by women. Part-time workers and millennials are also in the firing line. The immediate impact looks likely to be caused by the automation of low paid, repetitive roles such as shelf-stackers, waiting staff and catering assistants. This will be counterbalanced to a degree by the creation of jobs in computer science and herein lies the bigger issue. Currently, women make up just 22% of artificial intelligence professionals globally and the number of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects is woefully small.

Huge leaps forward have been made this century to introduce greater equality in what have traditionally been male industry sectors but there is still a very long way to go. The World Economic Forum has issued warnings about the impact of artificial intelligence on women’s career prospects. The author of the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 warned of “the risks associated with emerging gender gaps in Artificial Intelligence-related skills”. He said: “In an era when human skills are increasingly important and complementary to technology, the world cannot afford to deprive itself of women’s talent in sectors in which talent is already scarce.”

In the boardroom, where there are thankfully now more women than ever before, bosses should be alert to the issue of technology and equality. Bosses have the future in their hands and an opportunity to create new female technology role models within their organisation who could influence the evolution of their business and others.