Generative AI in the workplace: support act or starring role?
It’s long been accepted that a maturing AI tech market will inevitably lead to large-scale job losses: a 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute predicted 400 to 800 million jobs would be lost to AI automation by 2030.
However, the context has shifted in recent years: AI’s impact is now being felt in industries and sectors whose operations are rooted in the kind of imaginative and creative processes that were previously believed to be beyond the reach of technology. Even setting aside the high-profile, headline-stealing AI hijacks – such as Hollywood’s use of the tech to de-age actors or to create impressive deepfakes – the ramifications for less rarefied workplaces are prompting widespread concern.
Taking the H out of HR
The professions most susceptible to automation are still those that involve operating machinery or collecting/processing data. However, as automated apps turn their gaze from narrow problem sets to embrace a wider, more creative remit, what does it mean for the primacy of human endeavour?
Alan Brown, Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter and Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, neatly summarises the challenge.
‘The questions it raises for all of us are broad, deep, and troubling. What are the implications if this kind of AI-based system can readily, repeatedly, and without detection write an essay to complete your homework assignment, generate working software to build a new product feature, interpret complex legal procedures, invent a unique artwork, or pass the bar exam?’
Jeff Maggioncalda CEO of Coursera predicts that AI will impact the future of work more quickly and profoundly than many have expected, with the potential to affect an entire new class of knowledge workers, and unleashing a new wave of reskilling imperatives.
‘The use of AI in repeatable tasks is already widespread. With generative AI, the shift is likely to extend to cognitively and creatively advanced roles such as marketing and advertising, content writing and legal research, as well as jobs where code automation and AI-based decision-making can be applied at scale, such as financial analysts, accountants, and supply chain managers.
‘At an employer level, it is really important that a generative AI adoption strategy is combined with a sound reskilling strategy.’
Disrupting the status quo
For many businesses, it’s likely to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, AI tools have the potential to optimise myriad processes (like recruitment and onboarding, for example), transforming the way businesses operate. But extensive automation will inevitably and irrevocably disrupt established leadership and cultural paradigms.
Professor Gaurav Gupta is Associate Professor at NEOMA Business School.
‘It’s clear that generative AI will have a profound impact on the workplace of the future. Automation will shift the roles of knowledge-based workers, reduce the reliance on traditional leadership styles, and cause significant shifts in company culture.’
Indeed, as AI accelerates a tech-driven workplace evolution, the leaders who are responsible for guiding their organisations through change will come under additional pressure to manage this change with confidence and resilience.
Jeff Maggioncalda: ‘Leadership requires a unique combination of human skills and awareness of change and context that AI will likely never replace. However, it is crucial for leaders to be aware of the enormous potential of generative AI and how it may impact their industry and workforce. They will need to help their teams adapt and reskill, as well as managing all the risks and opportunities that come with AI.’
Tom Lakin is a future-of-work specialist and Director of Innovation at Resource Solutions. He believes that the impact on organisations and people caused by the increased use of sophisticated tech tools will call for greater agility at leadership level.
‘Leaders must navigate the two primary challenges (and opportunities) of generative AI. Firstly, deciding how to deploy generative AI in a way that delivers efficiencies while balancing risk; and, secondly, working out how to implement the HR changes and interventions that are needed to support employees working with the technology.
‘From a company culture perspective, organisations will need to embed a culture of ongoing positive change by sharing knowledge, minimising fear, and highlighting the benefits these new AI ‘colleagues’ bring.’
Capitalising on opportunities and managing risk
It’s crucial to consider these AI-enabled tools through the lens of opportunity: if advancements in technology mean we can automate more tasks, could humans find they actually have more freedom to innovate?
Chris Halsall is a Senior Partner with business and brand transformation consultancy Vivaldi.
‘While we are still a long way from realising AI’s full potential, we must accept AI as a co-worker who is here to stay – a wake-up call for we humans to up our game. The truth is too much ‘dumb’ work has been sapping the energy and potential of our organisations for too long. Now that the means exist to draw a clearer line between work that must be done by humans and work that can be done by technology, we should all seize the moment.’
And, while it’s likely that some roles will become obsolete, others – those requiring deeper skill sets – will also emerge, providing scope for individuals to leverage this new tech to become even more creative and productive.
Equality of opportunity must remain a key focus, though, especially when it comes to addressing and correcting systemic bias.
Although generative AI technologies have the potential to make communication and information more accessible to people from underrepresented groups – by reducing language barriers, for example, or by generating responses that are more representative of different cultural backgrounds – eliminating dataset bias will be difficult.
Dr Yi Chu is Senior Director of the Natural Language Processing (NLP) team at Workhuman.
‘Many recent studies show that generative AI technologies reinforce stereotyping because they are trained on datasets that encode human bias. This could potentially have a negative impact on marginalised groups and amplify inequalities. Less-biased text contents not only lead to a fairer model, but also positively impact on corporate DE&I culture.’
Lacey Hunter is co-founder and CEO of Tech Aid, a Web3 startup that uses the power of distributed tech to connect humanitarian aid suppliers with beneficiary demand data. Lacey believes that care should be taken to maintain a healthy equilibrium within a workforce.
‘Leaders must be vigilant to the potential implications for employee burnout if the ‘easier’ parts of people’s jobs are automated. A balance must be struck to enable healthy, productive coordination between AI-enabled tooling and the human workforce.’
An existential challenge
Ultimately, success at an organisational level will depend on how efficiently leaders and their teams can integrate AI tools into their business, while planning and managing the accompanying cultural transformation.
Jason Andersen, VP of Product at workplace culture expert O.C. Tanner, believes that this so-called ‘third wave’ of (enabling) technology could well liberate workers to enjoy more balanced and fulfilling work – but only if its implementation is properly managed.
‘Effective leaders help their organisations to thrive when they understand the technology and know how to manage its impact on their people.
‘The implications of technology for leadership and company culture are existential. The question isn’t if a company will deal with technology transformation, but rather if its leaders can effectively maintain culture and elevate their people through these technology transformations.’