From AI to D&I: Insights on How to Drive Change

Journalists, educators, and business leaders discussed the challenges and transformative potential of innovative leadership at Learning Xchange 2023.
Diane Nowell
Dec 08, 2023

Navigating the Storm

The theme for this year’s Headspring Learning Xchange was driving innovation in a changing world. We assembled a series of discussion panels, calling on a wide range of experts – including influential FT journalists, educators, HR and business leaders – to share their knowledge and insights into some of the most pressing challenges businesses face today, and to explore the transformational power of innovative leadership.

We invited our delegates to imagine how they could reframe their own leadership mindset and consider new ways to develop their teams and upskill their workforce at the scale and pace necessary to shape the future of work in their own organisations.

AI and the Future of Work

AI has the potential to be the most far-reaching change in our lifetime. It’s impossible to predict the long-term outcomes of a cultural shift that has already had such far-reaching impact but we need to think about how we balance the benefits of AI with the risks to humanity – how we can best foster innovation while regulating to avoid harm.

Principal Machine Learning Engineer with Sky, Huma Lodhi, and Natalia Konstantinova, Architectural Lead in AI at BP discussed their views on how companies can explore and exploit AI in a responsible and ethical way. The emphasis here was very much on using AI to help humans make decisions more quickly and reliably – and in applications where attention to detail is key, or where processes involve huge amounts of data. It was agreed that while job losses would be inevitable, there was perhaps greater potential for the creation of new jobs, with a concomitant need for ongoing workforce upskilling provision.

The assumption was that the future of work would involve fewer repetitive tasks, with technology being more integrated with human-led processes, but that this rapid pace of technological progress would inevitably throw up ethical dilemmas – around the handling of confidential data, for example. Ensuring that ethical considerations underpin the use of AI in the coming years would be of paramount importance – although agreeing a rules-based system for this could prove tricky. Maintaining transparency, mitigating bias and engendering public trust could be among the biggest challenges.

Why DE&I efforts are falling short and how to fix them

Bringing in diverse talent, experiences and skills can increase creativity and productivity within organisations. But embracing diversity isn’t just about extending opportunities to a wider audience, it’s also about ensuring there isn’t a tiny group of people controlling the outcomes, experiences and access of others.

Tracey Groves, Head of ESG and Sustainable Business Advisory Practice at DWF, Aduke Onafowokan, Director and Founder of Inclusivitii and Rukasana Bhaijee, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at the Financial Times were tasked with digging into the topic during a special DE&I-focused panel. Although DE&I is on every corporate radar, there are still many practical challenges to building a more inclusive company – including allowing it to become an exclusively HR responsibility or seeing it through the lens of compliance, rather than placing it at the heart of business strategy.

Taking ownership of DE&I from the top down – in terms of engagement and accountability – is the most important step, supported by the policies and procedures needed to embed change. Reporting, measuring and monitoring those things that are working – and those that aren’t – is essential to bring clarity to the journey and to pinpoint the areas where time, energy and resources should be targeted. Ultimately, a deeper level of analysis will start to move the dial. What’s especially crucial is ensuring that DE& issues aren’t deprioritised at a time when organisations need to build resilience for the future.

Transform at Scale – the agility advantage

Marcos Eguillor, Educator and Professor at Headspring and IE Business School tackled the topic of how companies can transform at scale in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Being able to react to change and disruption with speed and agility is key to surviving and thriving – we all need the resources to respond as individuals, professionals and as organisations.

Upskilling and reskilling at scale – so-called ‘skill scaling’ – is one way to stay abreast of the fast-paced innovation cycles and support organisational transformation. Scalability comes via the effective use of technology. This ‘liquid learning’ approach can be delivered through a combination of synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid activities using a variety of formats and channels to align with individual learning styles and motivations, and to make organizational transformation achievable, viable and impactful.

Transformational leadership – the power of reverse mentoring

What if we could transform the structural framework for learning within our organisations? What would it look like if information were to flow up through management levels as well as down – if the C-suite could learn from the associates? Inclusive leadership expert Patrice Gordon talked about turning learning on its head in a fireside chat with Financial Times ‘Working It’ podcast host Isabel Berwick.

Patrice has long espoused the benefits of reverse mentoring in her work with top corporate leaders. The concept is simple: senior leaders are mentored by people who are underrepresented – possibly from a gender, ethnicity or age perspective – around the leadership team table, with the aim of cultivating fresh perspectives and building a greater sense of belonging within the workplace. Changes in societal trends and behaviours are naturally and inevitably reflected in the workforce – demographic shifts, rapid technological advancements, climate change and urbanisation, for instance – and yet leadership teams across many organisations are lacking the diversity to mirror these shifts.

Ensuring that human interaction continues to inform the corporate agenda is critical when the landscape is changing so quickly. Changing the established hierarchical flow of information is essential to disrupt moribund thinking and unlock the creativity needed to lead business into an uncertain future. Tapping into the power of reverse mentoring is a powerful tool to help leaders understand that they don’t necessarily have all the answers and to open themselves up to new voices that can drive real cultural change in an organisation.

How to cultivate a future-ready work culture

What’s next? Amid broader discussions about the many creative and innovative ways to address the new challenges facing businesses and their leaders is the question of how we prepare and equip ourselves for the future. How can we ensure our companies are agile, adaptive and resilient? In short, how do we cultivate a future-ready work culture when there’s so much ambiguity?

The final pair of panellists – Daniel Fuster, Head of HR at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Perry Timms, Founder and Chief Energy Officer at People & Transformational HR Ltd – addressed this thorny issue. Both agreed that the landscape has changed drastically over the last five years: people are now thinking of change not as a programme but as a process of constant iteration. As a result, leaders need to see organisational design as a fluid, rather than episodic, strategy. The HR function, in particular, has gone from a business-support role to that of a business partner, reflecting the fact that people are at the heart of what organisations do – and aspire to do. As a result, talent acquisition, development and retention has become a more dynamic operation.

Setting the tone from the top – and embracing transparency and accountability – are essential elements of re-setting the work culture dial as companies and their staff deal with a tsunami of social and technological changes. People will have to develop new capabilities at speed, while businesses will need to prioritise supportive management practices alongside strong, visionary leadership to hold on to the best talent. Above all, creating the type of environment where people can feel their contribution (and wellbeing) is valued and where they are proud to be part of something bigger will be a key factor in workforce retention.

In an AI-dominated age, it seems like the human element of the HR equation is likely to be more vital than ever before.

Did you miss Headspring Learning Xchange 2023? Watch it on-demand here

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant