In AI era, CEOs must put people first

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We are at a critical inflection point in history. Artificial intelligence and other emerging digital technologies have the potential to exponentially enhance human capabilities. There is also fear about the rise of robots and the potential impact on society and jobs. But, contrary to Hollywood images and fear-mongering naysayers, AI, coupled with a commitment to ethics, people, diversity and inclusion, has the potential to usher in a new era of prosperity and opportunity for all. We have both a business and a moral responsibility to make it so.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the field of financial services. McKinsey estimates that in the next few years, as much as 10%-25% of work done in banks will be automated.

This automation will significantly improve productivity and customer service. More importantly, done right, it will free existing employees to engage in higher-value work and will help others prepare for the high-tech, high-demand jobs that are driving our industry and the new economy.

So much of the conversation around AI is about harnessing the data and the technology, but people must always come first. It’s not a question of people or machines, but people and machines working together to achieve what was once thought impossible.

The fourth industrial revolution is challenging business leaders to be clear about our core values. As our industry is transformed by AI, I offer three guiding principles:

First, business leaders have a responsibility to their people. Preparing people for the AI era is just as important as preparing for data and new technologies. It’s the people who will be the builders, developers, managers and innovators of emerging technologies. And people, equipped with core values and high ethics, are essential to ensuring that AI remains free of bias.

Leaders should be open and direct about the changes AI will bring and should embrace the responsibility to retrain and upskill employees for new roles as organizations transform. Will jobs change? Yes. Will some jobs go away? Yes. Will new jobs be created? Yes. The purpose of AI must be to augment and empower, not replace human judgment, ingenuity or personal interaction.

In financial services, AI, big data and machine learning are now working alongside humans to dramatically improve both business outcomes and the customer experience. Together, people and machines can better manage and mine the benefits of the mountains of data generated by billions of daily transactions.

For example, a growing number of banks and other financial services companies are now using AI-enabled chatbots to more quickly and efficiently respond to routine customer queries. And robotics process automation is deploying bots to automate time-consuming, manual tasks, freeing employees to focus on more difficult and fulfilling cognitive work.

The development of AI should not be left to a few data scientists. For maximum and sustainable success, AI innovation must be for all. It must be designed, created and refined by diverse teams working together to maximize effectiveness and avoid bias.

Second, organizations must be proactive about preparing the workforce for the jobs of the future. As roles evolve, success depends on empowering people to work with the agility that enables adaptability, emotional intelligence, creativity and critical thinking — core human skills that research indicates are essential in the AI era.

Companies need to direct investments in training, tuition reimbursement and new approaches to upskilling so that employees are ready to step into new and better jobs across a wider range of areas.

As financial firms plan for how their workforces will be transformed by their embrace of new technologies like AI, machine learning and robotic process automation, they should also make plans to provide development opportunities for employees to help meet those needs.

But preparing for the future of AI is not the sole responsibility of HR. Managers and mentors at all levels need to help encourage and create growth opportunities. Employees should also take advantage of resources to actively pursue new skills and ensure a better future for themselves and the company. Everyone needs to start developing plans for these changes in the future of work.

Third, no one company or industry can do this alone. Partnerships between business and the public sector can strengthen America’s global competitiveness. It’s imperative that we prepare the next generation of leaders and create a pipeline of talent in such fields as data science, cybersecurity and AI.

As someone who began her career four decades ago in a Citicorp call center, I value the hard work and dedication of the men and women who work on the front lines of customer service — the lifeblood of our business. As AI transforms our companies, we have both a business and a moral obligation to invest in our people. We cannot afford to wait. I encourage business leaders to create and intensify training and education efforts now so that companies, employees and our country can compete and win in the AI era.

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Artificial intelligence Workforce management Employee engagement Employee relations Margaret Keane Synchrony Women in Banking