Positive AI Transformation – Right Now

We hear on a regular basis that AI will transform our workplace, but whilst AI development and capability are accelerating, few practical methods to tackle this are suggested. In this post I offer an approach to addressing the impact, right now.

Few days go by without another headline or article from one of the big research consultancies telling us about the radical change ahead for the workplace. Figures on the impact vary, but the themes remain the same: lifelong learning, shift to value-add, no more monotonous tasks, new skills required. So how do we get there and what role can Change Management play?

The move towards Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (A/IS) is transformational.

Regardless of how an organisation experiences a change – organic/planned, emergent/designed, externally/internally driven – leadership teams increasingly recognise these changes require expertise & effort and invest accordingly, especially when bridges are burned and we wish to transform a company.

This is a good thing. We have opportunity. Companies understand that successful change needs some degree of attention and nurturing, which gives us a window to implement some key interventions to make automation a positive outcome, with ethical consideration and addressing the needs of all stakeholders.


So where do we focus out attention?

Thanks to the work of groups like the outstanding AINow Institute, we have a better understanding of the areas we would like to address, and the rationale for doing so. The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems‘ work to develop standards, UNI Global Union’s development of 10 Principles for Ethical AI and similar give us a structure within which to set our interventions, and guidance on what they should achieve. Finally we can take wisdom from the likes of Ed Hess as they bring practical action to the vague “new skills” so often mentioned in headlines.

Before we set out on addressing this transformation, we need to also recognise our constraints. 20 years’ experience delivering change at the sharp end, most of it career or even life changing for those affected, tells me that delivery pressure is high in these environments. Ironically, once agreement has been formed that change is going to occur, leadership can become laser focused on execution. In these fluid situations, introducing more uncertainty as questions with no answers is a swift way to become unpopular.

There are few organisations who have the resources to take a leap into the unknown; most need a path. We should provide that path. In his excellent article on the same, John Hagel describes the Zoom Out – Zoom In strategic approach adopted by leading tech companies. Drawing on this, whilst we should partner with management to deliver that long term vision, we as change management consultants also need to ensure the “Zoom In”: near-term, finite, achievable interventions that provide benefit. My experience is that management teams want to address ethical concerns, but that their ability to provide a window for doing so is finite. It is a balancing act to provide value to extend that window whilst keeping your eye on a bigger goal.

In addition, we should recognise that executing transformational strategy is a skill which is not in abundance. Change Management professionals vary between those who are essentially Communications Managers, to those who approach Management Consultancy levels of guidance. To require all near-term efforts be partnered with a perfected long-term A/IS ethics strategy risks procrastination, all whilst the automation projects continue unaddressed. If we can make a difference right now, we really should, whilst working towards a greater goal: every journey starts with a single step.

My recommendations for near term interventions that can begin the journey whilst providing actual value are in three key areas:

Inclusive Technology

steering definition of the future state towards transparency, fairness and equality.

The willingness of Change Managers to raise concerns on the future-state definition varies. Some are able to provide firm steer to prevent future problems, others will sell the vision regardless of outcome desirability. My position on this is clear: if we are to add value, protect our clients’ interests and those of the workforce we should make strong recommendations on activities that can avoid an undesirable future state.

This means ensuring development utilises Ethically Aligned Design or similar, that our transformation recognises all stakeholders and brings their voices to the table. We should drive for representation of social groups in our design through their active involvement in forums and product quality groups. We must involve the ethical voice in decision making, ensuring that project bodies include representation with clear goals and that there is a voting member of any project supervisory board concerned with ethical design.

Ethical Change

ensuring the Change Management profession operates ethically with increased data and A/IS systems advisory.

Change Management is given incredible amounts of freedom to utilise psychological tools in projects. Over the coming period we will see an increase in the amount of data available to Change Managers. We will also see a massive jump in analytics of this data, accompanied by recommendations, clustering, labeling of groups, etc. often provided by black box systems. It will be tempting to combine this capability with behavioural and cognitive tools which can impact an individual’s status within a company, or even damage their career and or personal well-being.

Change Management as a profession must police itself in this aspect. We must demand of ourselves that impacted people are not subject to utilitarian approaches, that they have full insight into why they might be receiving a different engagement, that they have visibility of any metrics provided on them and a right to challenge these. We must be especially vigilant for activities linking A/IS recommendations to actions that materially affect an individual e.g. segregating impacted stakeholders in a project including displacement.

Positive Outcomes

dealing with the inevitable impact on people’s roles, careers and lives with pragmatic steps.

There is general agreement that many people will be affected quite profoundly as automation increases. Most authors recommend a shift to new skills, new ways of approaching careers, new areas of expertise but stop short of providing recommendations on how this might be achieved.

Within the transformation we should challenge sponsors to implement a parallel project to enable the above shift. The goals must be fully recognised and stated, the budget ring-fenced as a minimum percentage of the total budget. The project must not be an “enabler” for the systems goals of the transformation.

All parties must recognise that: the stakeholder group must be larger than those realising the benefit (training for those leaving, for example), that the timelines for the project cannot be squeezed by other transformation activities, that failure to achieve the project’s goals means failure of the transformation with the appropriate consequences for sponsors and management team. There is expertise available, what is required is the rigour of governance to ensure this is utilised.


Act Now

Steps to getting these practical recommendation realised within our transformations are underway. These are not aspirational talking points, they are practical recommendations backed by achievable activity descriptions for implementation. My first step has been speaking to the Change Management Institute, as well as reaching out to the Association of Change Management Professionals to include these vital concerns in their body of knowledge and best practice.

At the same time I find it important to bring the transformation perspective to the working groups of the IEEE, to both inform the Change Management interventions as well as bring practical implementation guidance to the standards. Involvement with the Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems ensures this alignment.

Finally I continue to seek guidance from thought-leaders in AI Ethics & Change Management to ensure we have realistic but valuable interventions that align to future standards and governance. Whilst these discussions continue the drafted activity descriptions, based on the aims above, are being further detailed for use in best practice.

My request of you: if you are involved in Transformation – whether Sponsor, Project Manager, Change Manager, Systems, HR, etc. – it is vital you consider the people implications of your AI transformation above and beyond the headlines of displaced jobs. Start the conversations, ask questions of how you are going to tackle the issues, but offer solutions too. Organisational Leaders generally want to do the right thing, but need assistance in addition to challenge. Reach out if you’d like a hand. Get in touch too if you see an opportunity for joining forces to achieve more. Or just drop me a line to tell me if you agree.

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