As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on businesses around the world, it’s clear that many companies are accelerating the push for AI tools that can keep their employees safer and more connected — while also keeping their customers happier and more satisfied. It’s essential, however, that in the rush for AI adoption, business leaders take the time to consider the human factor in AI adoption. After all, humans are the ones who must be willing to use the technology if it’s going to be successful.
Let’s roll back for a moment. Even without the coronavirus emergency, there are two potential “problem areas” in any AI rollout. One is with the AI itself—how was it organized? Did it play well with other technologies in your stack? Was it created to scale well across your enterprise? Was it set up to nab the correct data? Were you able to find talented people to manage the AI once it was implemented? All of these are incredibly challenging issues and can cause almost any AI project to fall flat.
Still, tech strategy is not the only potential issue with AI adoption. The other is the adoption side itself—how well employees are able to adapt to the new technology in the real working world. How was the tech rolled out? How well were employees trained? Do they understand how it will impact them—and their role—moving forward? Do they believe it will be of true benefit to the customers and themselves? All of these issues are just as important as the hardware that goes into an AI rollout. Still, historically, this is where many companies seem to drop the ball. A 2019 report from the Harvard Business Review showed that just 8 percent of surveyed executives had put practices in place that would support widespread adoption of AI. Where does that lead? Low rates of adoption—and likely, lots of anxiety among employees.
In a time when employees are already working with anxiety due to the uncertainty of how coronavirus will impact their families and careers, it’s imperative that companies rolling out AI do so with great care in ensuring a clear adoption plan—one that takes employees and the real world into account. Because there is a push now to roll AI out even more quickly, however, it’s likely that the human side of AI development is going to be missed. To ensure a successful AI development process, consider the following.
- Train and QA. With everyone in a rush to get a touchless delivery app, curbside pickup app, etc. on the market, it’s clear that many companies are not taking the training and QA step seriously. I’ve spoken to plenty of employees who have no idea what the app vs. the website vs. the email is telling customers, and they’re simply not prepared to answer the questions coming their way. That’s why training is so essential. There is no amount of AI that can speed up your business if your employees aren’t trained to use it efficiently. Do not pass go without making this step a priority.
- Explain the long view. Right now, retail especially is launching AI in everything from drone delivery to inventory management. With coronavirus showing no end in sight, consumers want touchless delivery, safe shopping experiences, the ability to buy online and pick up curbside—with little to know change in their overall shopping experience. The way to make that a reality, however, still relies on humans. Humans are the bridge between the online and offline experience. They’re the brand, the ones who keep your business rolling, who explain the outage or the inventory discrepancy. They’re the face of your company. So, when launching new AI to support the “new normal,” take time to reassure and support them. Explain your long view on AI development. Is this the new normal for your business, or just normal until the crisis is over? And yes, that means taking time to think through the answers to those questions so you can give your employees a clear and solid way forward.
- Go slow. Tech adoption in any situation is hard. Trying to implement it over night during a global pandemic is even harder. Rather than doing a national overhaul, try implementing pilots of new technology, or adoption technology in phases. Allow employees time to get used to the tech, how it impacts (and hopefully supports) their workflow, and how it could benefit the company moving forward. Allow that realization to sink in before forcing the next step forward.
- Use metrics to see how you’re doing. As with anything related to humans in the workforce, feedback is essential. As such, use some of that new AI technology to collect data to see how you’re doing in guiding your employees on the AI journey. Has productivity improved? Efficiency? How are employees feeling about the change—has morale shifted? Are they feeling supportive and hopeful about future prospects? Moving ahead with AI adoption without considering how they impact your team is a disaster waiting to happen. Go in with eyes wide open and address issues as they appear.
Clearly, pandemic preparedness is going to demand a surge in AI deployment. AI can help make nearly any job more remote and reduce the health risks of person-to-person interaction. At the same time, it’s true that some essential jobs—cashiers, service attendants, etc.—could be clearly automated away in the name of making people safe. Without clear leadership, your employees could be experiencing a lot of fear about not just the virus but their future. And leadership is not a skill where AI leads the way. It’s a human function that relies on you—someone to plan and implement AI in a way that allows your people to work safely.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.
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