Long-Term Capitalism

Artificial Intelligence Is a Golden Opportunity to Start Unwinding Short-Termism

November 9, 2018  • Miguel Padró

The AI revolution is upon us.We know its impact will be massive. But what will our AI future look like?  Will AI help diagnose and cure disease, solve our most vexing problems, double GDP growth, and enhance lives, or will AI technology overwhelm humanity in the ways the late Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warned? The same technology could create those very different futures. The difference in outcome will be determined by choices that people—especially business leaders and investors—make about AI. It’s time then, for us to start thinking more seriously about how short-termism might impact the age of AI.

It’s clear that AI will transform a lot of jobs, from cashiers in retail stores to underwriters of insurance policies to radiologists at hospitals. But how these transformations unfold will depend on whether these choices are made with a long-term view or not. This is a huge responsibility… and a great opportunity for business to shift away from the slavish obsession with quarterly stock performance and towards what  Accenture CTO, Paul Daugherty recently characterized as a new era of “increased humanity and increased human potential.”

Over the past year, we partnered with Accenture to research how AI is impacting the workplace inside companies across a range of industries. The report, Missing Middle Skills for Human – AI Collaboration is optimistic about the opportunity AI presents for workers and companies. Leading companies have been planning for this transition for years and are thoughtfully deploying AI in ways that will enable AI and human workers to complement each other in powerful ways.

But this optimism should also be tempered by the reality that the same short-term thinking that has undercut investments in worker wages and training  in recent decades remains in place. Many companies do not yet appear ready to make the necessary investments in their workers to capture the enormous potential of the human + machine age of work. If this continues, it will harm business performance, workers and their families, and it will prevent us from reaping the greatest rewards from AI.

In 1979, workers could expect about 2.5 weeks of training per year. By 2011, only 20% of workers reported receiving any skills training in the previous 5 years.

The bottom line is that the AI revolution is here and it’s likely to be highly disruptive and difficult for many people. The choices made by business, particularly in their role as employers, will determine whether the disruption strengthens society as a whole, or weakens it. So how do we ensure that business leaders avoid the short-termism trap and fulfill AI’s incredible potential?

Invest heavily in worker training

Companies need to develop the new skills and talent in their workforce, and fast. A recent study from Korn Ferry predicts that “Constant learning—driven by both workers and organizations—will be central to the future of work, extending far beyond the traditional definition of learning and development.”  But this is going to be harder than it sounds. Business has gotten out of the habit of updating the skills of workers who fall outside of the manager or high-skill ranks. Wharton Professor, Peter Cappelli has noted that in 1979, workers could expect about 2.5 weeks of training per year. By 2011, only 20% of workers reported receiving any skills training in the previous 5 years. In a survey published by Accenture earlier this year, only 3% of executives plan to invest substantially in worker training in preparation for the AI revolution.

Meanwhile, workers themselves are eager for more training and the opportunity to update their skills to work with technology. Sixty-seven percent of workers report believe it will be important to learn new skills to work with AI in the next 3-5 years. This is an enormous opportunity for managers to update their own mindsets and assumptions about their workers and training. It’s an opportunity to engage with workers, uncover the latent talents that their existing work is not tapping into, to engage and to motivate.

Redesign the work to put humans in a position to succeed

AI creates exciting new opportunities for companies but many of those opportunities will be lost if  executives are too focused on AI as a means to automate tasks. Enormous long-term growth potential lies in human + machine collaboration, not blunt automation. To capture these opportunities, companies will need to fundamentally rethink how work gets done and avoid the shortcut of thinking about AI as any another automation technology.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, distinctly human talents will be in higher demand in the age of AI.  Strategy, creativity, empathy, and judgment, will be more important and high-performance teams will increasingly blend human talents and diversity with smart machines in new, dynamic and innovative ways. In fact, more than half of jobs in the U.S. need more high-level creativity, 47 percent require more complex reasoning and 36 percent need more socio-emotional skills. But transforming the structure and design of work requires huge investments in time and resources. It can be nothing short of an organizational transformation. The stakes- and the expense- are high.

By investing in a long term vision of a human and machine collaboration, companies at the front edge of the AI transformation are setting an example of foresight and intention that hold real promise. Autodesk is rethinking human and AI roles in delivering customer service.  Walmart is investing $2.7 billion in worker training and reimagining jobs in retail. Salesforce is empowering workers to prepare for their future work through its Trailhead continuous learning program. These companies are not alone. But we are far from a critical mass. This combined long term vision and investment needs to be the norm, not the exception.

Management choices will go a long way toward defining the kind of AI-enabled future we get. Will short-termism define the age of AI or will business leaders and managers learn to invest in the true long-term potential of the age of human + machine? How might we know? We can start by asking our business leaders about their plans to invest in worker training and redesigning jobs for the human + machine age.