Executives in board rooms worldwide are asking the question, "What is our AI strategy?” No matter the industry or type of job it can be applied to, generative AI is undoubtedly poised to influence the way work is done.
This is why we wanted to talk to Ted Shelton, Expert Partner at Bain & Company, on a recent LinkedIn Audio event to go over the impact of AI and intelligent automation on their business processes—especially their workforce. Ted is a member of Bain’s digital transformation practice and advises some of the top companies in the world on ways to leverage intelligent automation, advanced analytics, and machine learning.
Here are some highlights from our conversation:
AI implementation now a boardroom-level discussion
Ted has been working in the automation space for a decade, and he said conversations around integrating new technology into business processes would rarely reach the boardroom—until now. He said almost every business executive he talks to mentions AI and intelligent automation and how they can leverage it.
“Suddenly, it's very relatable technology, and people are able to comprehend the kind of impact that it can have on their business,” he said. “But I think the challenge is that they don't understand how it works. And there's a tendency to sort of say, oh, it's like this Harry Potter magic wand that I can wave, and all these problems I have in my business go away.”
He said the key thing for business executives to keep in mind when it comes to applying generative AI to their processes is thinking of the technology in deterministic and probabilistic terms. Deterministic being an exact answer to a specific question, and probabilistic being an assumption based on prior inputs.
Basically, there are situations in which you don’t want AI to be guessing at the answer; you want the correct answer to the problem. Meaning you want deterministic and probabilistic automation to work together to solve the different kinds of interactions it’s going to have, whether that be with employees or customers.
Human input + AI = force multiplier
That’s where the human element of AI comes in, which may seem counterintuitive. But, Ted said, it’s an important element of adding creativity and critical thinking oversight to a very deterministic system—which creates a “force multiplier.”
This way, you can deploy AI to take monotonous, low-value tasks out of the hands of your human employees to free them up to take on high-value endeavors.
“So you have your workforce that is, increasingly over the next decade, going to be freed up to spend their time doing those higher value activities like critical thinking, creative, and interpersonal relationship tasks. These will be supported by probabilistic and deterministic systems that can take over all the rules and all of the rote work and even predictive work,” Ted said.
Employees will then be empowered to think about problems critically and creatively, supported by an information system delivered by AI.
Businesses shouldn’t wait for the government to step in
That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t important ethical questions to be asked surrounding this emerging technology—and there is no shortage of people in government and the private sector sounding the alarm bells.
But, Ted said, the business world should be concerned about the government stepping in to regulate a technology they don’t fully understand. He brought up a recent congressional hearing over TikTok and the apparent reality that very few politicians actually understood the technology for which they were ultimately deciding the future.
“We cannot rely upon the government to tell us what is and is not acceptable to use in our businesses,” he said. “At Bain, we talk about the concept of stakeholder capitalism, as distinguished from shareholder capitalism.”
“We think that businesses should have a strong moral compass. It is ultimately good for businesses to consider the impacts of their decisions, not just on increasing the wealth of their shareholders, but also on increasing the success and satisfaction of their employees, their customers, the communities they serve on the planet as a whole.”
Meaning if business is leveraging AI for the benefit of society as a whole, it’s less likely that government will jump in with heavy-handed regulation without fully understanding those implications.
AI will augment information work
Beyond ethical concerns and regulatory implications—and the impending transformation robotics plus AI will have on manual work, which is a topic unto itself—the benefits from generative AI will be mostly industry agnostic, Ted believes.
“We're all going to be increasingly doing information work because the physical work is going to be supplanted by physical robotics,” he said. “And so then, within that information sphere, there are a whole set of very common business tasks that we all engage in, writing emails, writing proposals, writing reports, and virtually every single one of those things is going to be impacted by these generative AI tools.”
He cited an MIT study that looked closely at two groups of people doing common business activities. One set did those activities without the help of AI, and the other with AI’s help. The group using AI showed not only a significant increase in time saved completing the tasks but also a significant improvement in the quality of work.
Ted said his main takeaway from the study was that AI can save time and augment manual tasks and quality of output, sure, but the technology needs the human touch to serve as an oversight for fact-checking, creative input, and to improve itself.
The AI transformation is happening now
One thing is for certain, Ted said, generative AI isn’t a technology to be concerned with down the road. It’s here now, and decision-makers should be acting accordingly.
“You are not going to be able to be patient; this is a transformation that you have to embrace as happening in your lifetime,” he said. “You can't say, ‘Oh, I'm gonna be retired in five years, I don’t have to worry about it.’ No, no, you have to worry about this now. It's happening now.”
Learn more about the future of work and AI in Ted’s newsletter, Infinite Future.