AI in the workplace: Friend or Foe?

7 mins | Alistair Cox | Article | CEO news Learning and development Market trends Workforce management Technology

It feels like generative AI is taking over the world right now. If you’re anything like me, you’ve also been experimenting with it to test its capabilities. So far, I’ve been able to create paragraphs of text, generate presentations, design art, create travel itineraries and assign tasks in seconds with a simple instruction. It feels like the possibilities are endless and nine times out of ten when I try something, I’m impressed with what comes back.

But if generative AI can do everything we ask it to, how long until it takes over our jobs? The truth is that we don’t have all the answers yet. Generative AI is evolving all the time, and the possibilities are both incredibly exciting, and somewhat terrifying. Some of the greatest brains in our world are predicting a benevolent tsunami of possibilities, while others are urgently calling for a halt in research to let society catch-up with the implications being unleashed. What we do know, though, is that jobs are already being transformed irreversibly before our eyes.

Is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

Can AI do the boring parts of your job for you?

Instead of feeling threatened by AI, I think we should see it as our new best friend at work. Specialist skills will always be in demand, while generative AI can take away the boring, time-consuming parts of our jobs. This will free us up to do the more interesting tasks, that the human brain is so good at, such as thinking creatively and strategically, thus enabling us all to really drive growth in our organisations, no matter what our roles are. That’s incredibly empowering and it’s a view shared by OpenAI Co-founder Greg Brockman, who pointed out in a recent interview that AI is yet to automate a whole job. As he put it: “Humans are more capable than we give ourselves credit for.” I also think they are more adaptable.

Tim Olsen, Intelligent Automation Director at Hays, recently recorded a video on generative AI, where he reasoned that humans will always prefer to communicate with other people, and that our empathetic skills will always be in demand.

Given the potential to increase workforce productivity, integrating AI is an opportunity many businesses can’t afford to miss. As put in this article by McKinsey: “The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the defining business opportunities for leaders today. Closely associated with it: the challenge of creating an organization that can rise to that opportunity and exploit the potential of AI at scale.”

In this month’s blog, I’m going to show you how AI can join your workforce and make it more productive, by highlighting how this new wave of automation is impacting certain sectors.

Four industries benefitting from AI

So, which sectors are already doing this? Let me highlight four industries which are embracing generative AI, by seeing it as a friend, not a foe, and in turn already leveraging all the benefits it can bring.

1. Accounting and Finance

Accountants are activating ChatGPT to write formulae, using the plug-in for Microsoft Excel. Bloomberg are also developing their own large language model to support on tasks in finance. The obvious application for this is in analysis and advisory services. With the right prompt, AI will be able to compile reports or access information for statements.

This doesn’t mean that skilled workers will be out of demand. Olsen explained: “If we compare GPT to the introduction of the calculator, we didn’t see thousands of accountants being made redundant in the 1980s. Instead, the calculator improved their productivity.”

Being able to instantly access insights from a vast data lake will allow us to focus on making better informed decisions, based on those insights.

By managing these repetitive or laborious tasks, the human experts will have more time on their hands. Used profitably, this time can unleash our soft skills (or should I say, human skills), such as problem-solving for the tasks AI can’t (yet) perform or building relationships both inside and outside the organisation.

2. Construction and Property

Architect John W. Lynch has written about his experience of discussing the design of a building with ChatGPT. He writes: “My takeaway was not so much a frightful panic that automation might render my role obsolete, nor had I found a free and convenient means of cutting corners; rather, I signed off with a creative burst of new ideas and a fresh perspective”. We’re not looking at a replacement for architects, but a source of inspiration.

I had my own experience playing with Midjourney with an old friend who’s an architect too. The tool prompted his own creative juices and he created designs that to my untrained eye were simply beautiful - definitely homes I would want to live in!

AI has other uses, though. Togal.AI, for example, is a tool that allows construction firms to speed up their takeoffs. It does this by analysing drawings and automating adjustments with a prompt, a job that would otherwise need to be done one click at a time. Their CEO, Patrick E. Murphy, believes that his company is helping its clients to save time, rather than reduce their workforce. He explains: “We take a task that a human does manually in three, four or five days and do it in about ten seconds now. So, we save a lot of time for the humans to focus on high-value tasks.”

With regard to compliance, generative AI not only has the potential to identify any building code violations but can also offer corrections. That being said, humans with expertise will be required to maintain and update this tech, meaning that specialists have a huge part to play.

3. Customer service

AI in customer service is something that nearly all of us have experienced already, whether we know it or not. It’s become commonplace to direct our queries to an online chatbot, which then points us in the direction of the information we need. If all else fails, we’re forwarded to a human who can help us with specific issues we’re facing.

Ultimately, ChatGPT and Google’s Bard are more advanced versions of the chatbots you can find in the corner of any consumer website. However, the progress made in using complex language and being able to understand our questions is likely to result in a smoother user experience. Issues will be resolved even more quickly, leading to greater customer satisfaction.

That good work is undone, however, if there aren’t humans to manage those requests that can’t be handled by AI. To avoid those unsatisfactory experiences for the customer, support centres still need the human touch. As Olsen sees it: “The majority of simple requests will be handled by automated channels such as chatbots. More complex enquiries, or ones requiring empathy and emotional intelligence, such as complaints, will sit with humans”.

Customers won’t be the only humans that are supported, either – the agents themselves will be able to use AI tools to give an improved service. As this McKinsey article points out: “A reimagined AI-supported customer service model therefore encompasses all touchpoints—not only digital self-service channels but also agent-supported options in branches or on social-media platforms, where AI can assist employees in real time to deliver high-quality outcomes.”

4. Technology

It’s often said that the greatest weakness in an organization’s cyber security isn’t the machines, but human error. With an AI model that learns from employee data, security teams can now predict and mitigate against any actions that could lead to costly breaches. Microsoft Copilot is already supporting security teams in a number of ways, leading to preventative measures and quicker responses.

In one of the most eye-catching demonstrations at the launch of GPT-4, OpenAI demonstrated how ChatGPT could create a webpage using a sketch from a napkin. What does this mean for existing software developers? Generative AI can enable junior developers to achieve more, while those in senior roles can use it to save time checking for errors and focus more on the strategic elements of their roles.

As with finance, this could fundamentally change the remit of the role. Experienced programmer Corey Gaspard predicts: “If AI can generate 70–90% of the necessary code, the tedious aspects of development will be significantly reduced. The focus of software creation will shift more towards understanding architecture, frameworks, integration, and strategies for launching applications in the market.”

Three questions to ask yourself when integrating AI into your organization

It's inevitable that generative AI is going to impact your organization very soon, if it hasn’t already. Given its growing capabilities, it’s worth thinking about what it can enable your workforce to achieve.

How will your workforce be impacted? Some people believe that AI could bring about a reduction in the workforce but, as leaders, we need to think about how we can act ethically and responsibly by ensuring that we all have a role to play in this evolution.

What can you trust AI with? Don’t forget, every piece of information you share with ChatGPT is stored and retained to improve the model. As a result, it’s unwise to input sensitive, personal or confidential information, while we should only use AI tools for personal productivity purposes, and not decision making.

Take ownership of your data and train your staff to ensure they don’t release sensitive information. There is an interesting debate already brewing now where organizations that hold significant data are ensuring that never gets exposed to external AI. Are we going to see a world increasingly retreating behind firewalls? Probably, as people seek to protect what they own and which underpins their own value.

With more time freed up, how can you upskill your people to help them reach their potential and benefit your business? Many advocate the creation of an "analytics academy". As opposed to “an ad hoc approach”, this is an in-house training program that helps your workforce develop expertise, such as analytics-translator skills, to align with your organisation’s AI transformation needs.

As Olsen puts it: “Leaders need to anticipate the shift in demand towards technology-based skills and plan to overcome the growing skills gap, but also to harness automation such as GPT selectively to solve part of that shortfall by improving productivity. The immediate priority is to ensure that employees can take advantage of these new technologies and do not become increasingly AI illiterate.”

There’s no doubt the explosion of AI in the last few months feels like one of those watershed moments where something incredibly profound has been established and the world is scrambling to come to terms with the implications. But it’s here to stay - you cannot uninvent it and it will impact your life, career and organization.

About this author

Alistair Cox

Alistair was the CEO of Hays, plc from 2007-2023. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.

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