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December 11, 2023

People first: Ensuring human-centric AI adoption

To get the most out of AI initiatives, businesses must build them around—and for—the team members who will use them.

Artificial intelligence is a fact of business life. What remains to be seen is whether businesses will use emotional intelligence in adopting it.

Even before generative AI made ChatGPT a household word, studies found that AI and machine learning (ML) were high on the list of technologies necessary for a company to be future-ready. The freight-train progress of generative AI has put an exclamation point on this fact. AI/ML in general, and gen AI specifically, will add productivity and affect the vast majority of team members in one way or another.

Ah, yes. About those team members. While roles will shift and some will inevitably fade away (think data entry), most will not. Far from replacing human team members, AI will make better use of their talents and empower them. Indeed, many believe we’re entering a golden age for team members, as AI, demographic changes, and other factors make them more valuable—and scarce—than ever.

To thrive in this environment, organizations must adopt AI in a way that resonates with the people it serves and the individuals it affects. The AI transformation must be rooted in empathy and understanding, and must foster an environment in which the technology complements human capabilities.

For many businesses, this will not come naturally; for a century or more, it’s been axiomatic that tech advances eliminated team members—it was a hard fact, but a fact, nonetheless.

No longer. Going forward, enterprises that think of AI primarily as a workforce reduction tool will be cutting off their nose to spite their face. They will have difficulty attracting and retaining team members, and they’ll miss out on the truly transformational synergy that AI promises.

While employees are central to the implementation of AI systems, they may not inherently know how to engage. Teaching team members to work alongside AI tools and equipping them with the necessary skills will enhance productivity and job satisfaction.

It’s human nature to fear or distrust that which is unfamiliar. Overcoming this resistance to change is challenging for any organization. Remember that open communication about AI initiatives fosters trust and reduces resistance. Transparently discussing the goals, benefits, and potential impacts of AI projects can address concerns and misconceptions upfront and along the way, allowing time to mitigate small challenges before they grow.

With all this in mind, here’s what we’ve learned through client engagements about implementing AI with a people-first mindset.

1.    Establish effective communication and encourage participation
  • Clearly communicate the reasons behind the change, the benefits it will bring, and the risks of not changing. For example, a business may explain that its top competitors are all embracing AI, and that it will lose market share by failing to keep up.

  • Use various communication channels to reach different stakeholders, ensuring everyone is well-informed.

  • Create an open and safe space for dialogue. Acknowledge and listen to employees’ concerns and feedback and provide supportive solutions to address those concerns.

  • Involve employees in the change process from the beginning. Seek their input and ideas on how to implement the change effectively. People are more likely to support what they’ve helped create—their involvement fosters a sense of ownership and commitment. Moreover, team members’ subject matter expertise will be critical if the company is to make the most of its AI transformation—this must be communicated early and often.
2.    Prioritize sponsorship, education and training
  • Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone for change. As the business embraces AI, leaders from the CEO on down must visibly support and demonstrate commitment to the change. Flexibility in leadership shows that the organization is responsive to the needs and concerns of employees.

  • Provide thorough training for employees to ensure they have the necessary skills and knowledge to adapt to the change. Team members who fear AI is coming for their job will relax and contribute to the transformation when they learn that they not only still have a role—but that their expertise is highly valued.

  • Address fear and uncertainty by offering resources and learning opportunities to build confidence in new processes or technologies.
3.    Empower and demonstrate trust
  • Give employees a degree of autonomy in how they adapt to the change. Empowered employees are more likely to embrace change positively. We’ve helped many clients implement intelligent process automation, and they inevitably find that team members possess a deep well of knowledge that can help the project succeed.

  • Encourage stakeholders to find innovative ways to implement the change within their roles.
4.    Think long-term
  • Establish a continuous feedback mechanism to gather insights on how the change is progressing and where adjustments are needed.

  • Use the feedback received to refine the change process and make necessary improvements.

  • Adapt your approach based on feedback and evolving circumstances. Be open to tweaking the change plan as needed.

  • Recognize and celebrate small wins and milestones along the way. This helps maintain morale and motivation during the transition.

  • Highlight positive outcomes and success stories resulting from the change.

  • Remember that change takes time, and not everyone will embrace it immediately. Be patient.

  • Provide ongoing support and resources to help employees navigate through the change.

By prioritizing the well-being and concerns of employees, organizations can create an environment in which change is seen as an opportunity for growth and improvement rather than a threat. A people-first mindset fosters collaboration, trust, and a sense of shared purpose that can greatly reduce resistance to change.

AI and ethics

As AI continues to grow in importance, ethical considerations are a much-discussed topic. In one study, we found that “organizations that prioritize AI ethics outscore those that don’t on every marker of employee well-being and workplace resilience.” Ethics contribute to the long-term sustainability of a human-centric AI adoption.

Businesses need to create AI guardrails; these guidelines should encompass transparency, accountability, fairness, privacy, and security considerations. Building this framework requires input from ethicists, domain experts, policymakers, and representatives from impacted areas to provide input throughout the AI development process.

Organizations must identify and rectify biases in data (training materials, feedback mechanisms, etc.) to avoid perpetuating discrimination, and they must regularly audit AI systems for fairness, taking corrective actions as needed.

Additionally, businesses must implement stringent data protection measures to safeguard user information, and must adhere to relevant data protection regulations and standards. Finally, it’s important to regularly assess AI systems’ performance and impact on users, and to implement mechanisms for ongoing monitoring, auditing, and improvement.

Fostering an environment of innovation that values ethics and responsibility is parallel to encouraging research and development that aligns with human well-being, a key element in creating an AI program that is people-centric and focused on sustainability.

Adapted from “Putting People at the Forefront of AI Transformations: Ensuring Human-Centric AI Adoption.”

To learn more, visit the Workday Solutions & Consulting section of our website or contact us.

Maria Harris

AVP, Organizational Change & Training

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Maria Harris leads Organizational Change Advisory Services at Cognizant’s Workday practice. She frequently shares insights related to business transformation, people, and digital innovation. Before joining Cognizant, Maria worked for 25 years in business strategy at Boeing, BAE, and other consulting firms.

Erin Finch

Director, Organizational Change & Training

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Erin Finch is an accomplished change management and transformation leader with a track record of spearheading global transformation initiatives that deliver improved operational efficiency, heightened associate engagement, and sustained growth through technologies like artificial intelligence.

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