Perceptions of artificial intelligence – and L&D’s priorities

Written by Bob Little on 15 July 2019 in Features
Features

Bob Little explores current workplace perceptions of artificial intelligence (AI) and their implications for HR and L&D professionals.

Reading time: 6 minutes.

The discipline known as Artificial Intelligence (AI) dates from 1956 when, at a workshop held on the Dartmouth College campus in the USA, the MIT cognitive scientist, Marvin Minsky, said, “Within a generation... the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.”

While AI has taken longer to develop than Minsky predicted, it’s being facilitated by the imminent spread of 5G and its associated effects.

AI is a term that’s now, to some extent, in everyone’s thoughts and on everyone’s lips. Some see its development as a boon – perhaps in terms of analysing large amounts of data to help medical science develop cures for cancer. Others see AI as a threat – to their jobs, their lifestyle, their communities and way of life.

HR and L&D professionals are far from immune to AI’s effects and implications – in terms of jobs, skills development and so on.

Recently, Headspring partnered with YouGov to research how professionals in Europe and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) understand that AI will affect the workplace. The resulting report represents the views of some 4,515 people, working in a range of industries, in the UK, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain and the UAE.

Some see its development as a boon...others see AI as a threat – to their jobs, their lifestyle, their communities and way of life.

Key findings

Defining AI as: ‘the theory and development of computer systems that are able to perform tasks which normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages’, the survey’s key findings are:

  • AI is well-known, although in-depth knowledge about it is mixed. Only 2% of those surveyed claimed never to have heard of AI.
  • Humans still prefer to trust humans, not AI, to make decisions. Less than 20% of those surveyed said they would trust an AI decision over a human’s judgement.
  • AI may be taking some people’s jobs but it will also help people make ‘better’ decisions. Less than 10% of those questioned fear AI-related redundancy.
  • AI is seen as no better than humans at fostering diversity.
  • Employees see themselves as better prepared for the effects of AI than are their employers.

While 43% of respondents already use AI or feel prepared to use it within the next 12 months, almost 66% of respondents think that their employer isn’t prepared to adopt AI within the next year.

Looking at characteristic results from professionals in each of the geographies surveyed, UK professionals are generally unwelcoming of AI - although 55% of those surveyed agreed they know little about AI. Most professionals in Denmark and Sweden feel that they and their employers are unprepared to adopt AI within the next 12 months.

In Germany, professionals expressed a low regard for AI’s potential to improve diversity in the workforce. While some 75% of professionals in Germany don’t use AI, some 84% of professionals in France use or feel prepared to use AI within the next 12 months.

Spanish professionals rank highest in the belief that AI will make their work more efficient and of better quality but only 17% think that these improvements will translate into improved job opportunities. Chief executives in the UAE are unique among CEOs in seeing business development as the best potential benefit of AI.

Knowledge gap

Overall, there is a significant gap in AI knowledge and attitude between senior roles and the rest of the organisation. Women, especially, tend to share more concerns about AI’s potential to negatively impact the workforce.

A key message for HR professionals about organisations adopting and using AI is that not only do employees need to feel safe and understand more about AI so that they can maintain higher motivation and morale, they also need to feel confident in engaging with this new technology. This is true at all levels of the organisation.

 

Understandably, the results of this research don’t suggest an international workforce enthusiastically campaigning for the adoption of AI. However, the appetite for learning and engaging appears high. Employers need to make the most of this if they want to exploit the commercial benefits of AI.

Overcoming misconceptions

Fear of job redundancy from the application of AI is low (under 10%) and much less than the expectation of new opportunities and upskilling arising from AI’s use. Stereotypical concerns about companies using AI for secret employee surveillance are also extremely rare.

The second most widely held belief about AI is that it will help people make better decisions. People are also aware of the fact that, since it’s programmed by humans, AI can be flawed and not as unbiased as it was once expected to be. Decision makers still have a much greater trust in humans than in machines.

Investing in people and technology

Another key message to emerge from this survey is that hard and soft skills development requires attention. The clear priority for AI-readiness is an investment in new technology and infrastructure, which will require bolstering of technical know-how and upskilling in ‘hard’ areas of aptitude. However, it is in the softer areas of resource management that leaders may need to pay the most attention.

Industries such as IT, financial services and accountancy are, predictably, regarded as exposed to AI, but professionals in these areas generally seem well-prepared for the adjustment.

One of the most desired interventions among professionals in Headspring’s study was the establishment of a new business role that oversees AI integration. In times of uncertainty - as AI will unavoidably create - people need leadership. The deciding factor for most organisations, then, will be how their leaders respond.

AI and the role of leaders

AI appears to represent an inevitable and exciting opportunity for businesses across all regions and industries. However, success in its implementation will depend on the management of employee expectations and confidence in the value of transition.



Leaders wishing to move towards adopting AI in their organisations can learn much by listening to professionals’ views and recommendations. In particular, leaders – and HR/ L&D professionals - need to address a key theme emerging from this report: employees feel a need for enhanced internal communication to manage potential negative perceptions.

In addition to internal communication, the need for upgraded investment in people and L&D activities is a major outcome from this study. The implementation of processes to manage ethics around AI also emerged as a priority.

AI’s ten messages for HR/ L&D professionals

  • HR and learning and development (L&D) professionals are far from immune to AI’s effects and implications – in terms of jobs, skills development and so on.
  • Employees need to feel safe and understand more about AI so that they can maintain higher motivation and morale
  • Employees at all levels of the organisation also need to feel confident in engaging with this new technology.
  • The workforce’s appetite for learning about, and engaging with, AI appears high.
  • Investing in new technology and infrastructure requires a bolstering of technical know-how and upskilling in ‘hard’ areas of aptitude.
  • However, it’s the softer areas of resource management that also need attention.
  • Success in AI’s implementation will depend on the management of employee expectations and confidence in the value of transition.
  • HR/ L&D professionals need to provide workers with enhanced internal communication to manage any potential negative perceptions from the adoption of AI.
  • In addition to internal communication, AI’s adoption provides a need for upgraded investment in people and L&D activities.
  • Implementing processes to manage ethics around AI are also a priority.

 

About the author

Bob Little is a writer and commentator specialising in corporate learning – especially e-learning – and technology-related subjects. You can contact Bob via bob.little@boblittlepr.com. You can download the full report from Headspring here.

 

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