Communicating Your AI Initiatives: Benefits and Risks

M. L. Hopkins09/14/2023

Across business sectors, many leaders are exploring or implementing artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, or other automation to enhance operational efficiency, data security, customer service, and predictive inventory management. Success of these efforts may depend, in part, on the clarity of companies’ vision and unique communications to employees, customers, and other segments, says Concentra’s Director of Customer Experience Rico Mace, who has a doctorate in business administration-strategy and innovation.

Clarity and continual updates

“Starting to dabble in the AI technology space without developing and communicating a clear vision and policies leaves employees at a loss to understand how to use it, what’s acceptable, and how to align with enterprise objectives,” Mace says.

Being specific about your company’s application of AI is vital. “When someone says they are using AI, that’s meaningless without more definition. Saying you are ‘using AI’ is akin to saying you are ‘using marketing.’ It’s a broad concept. What exactly do you mean? Are you using it to replace a small business process or as part of a multi-million-dollar product?” he says.

You’re not alone in trying to define AI and its role. So are representatives of business, government, consumers, and employees. Specifically, they are in the throes of deciding how to harness its benefits while avoiding abuses and instilling appropriate regulation without stunting innovation.1 The process will be ongoing. Policies and employee training will need to be continually updated to reflect new regulations and legislation.

For many employees, Al may be their first exposure to the excitement of "blue ocean strategy" that seeks new markets with little competition or barriers standing in the way of innovation.2 “It’s a big blue ocean with untapped markets just waiting for invention and change,” says Mace. “As business leaders, we need to make sure we communicate uniquely and well to each segment, based on their needs and fears.”

Apply lessons recently learned

Confronting AI, customers, prospects, policy makers, and regulators may wrestle with questions about accuracy, privacy, security, and ethics. Meanwhile, employees may focus on whether there is potential for their skills to become irrelevant.3 Regarding employees, the good news is, managers with strong leadership skills have learned as recently as the COVID global health emergency how to soothe employee anxiety by effectively using good management tools and emotional intelligence.

Jared Spataro, who leads Microsoft’s modern work and applications team, takes the positive approach and buffs it to a shiny, high gloss. Create a culture of curiosity, he tells leaders, by getting employees excited about AI as a dynamic “copilot,” instead of just a tool – one that can lighten workloads, eliminate rote or manual tasks, and give employees more time for creative work.4

“Nearly two-thirds of employees surveyed (in the 2023 Work Trend Index of 31,000 people in 31 countries) told us they don’t have enough time or energy to do their jobs,” he says, noting that employees are engaged in creative pursuits less than half the time they spend at their jobs. Second, give employees time to experiment, fail, and develop their own ideas about how AI can be adapted to their work. “If we create a culture where experimentation and learning are viewed as a prerequisite to progress, we’ll get there much faster,” he says.

Provide context, respect expertise

Managers can help employees embrace AI by reminding them of the technology challenges they have already confronted and now live with comfortably. “AI, in its many forms, has been around for more than 50 years, but many people simply don’t recognize it’s been beside them all this time,” according to a Computerworld article that gives the examples of automated credit card approvals/transactions and GPS navigation systems.5

Generative AI, as the latest AI application, is fueling excitement due to its ability to identify patterns and structures to create new content, process vast unstructured data, and assist in decision making (support, augmentation, and automation).

By incorporating this context and excitement into communications with employees about AI, managers can help to ease fears and unleash imagination and fun. Emphasize AI is a partner, not a replacement.

Perhaps the biggest need, however, is for managers to convey a strong sense of respect for current employees and their expertise. The importance of respect was clear when Wall Street Journal reporter Isabelle Bousquette investigated how front-line employees at Sam’s Club, Home Depot, Walmart, and others were reacting to AI implementation and leadership’s promises that it would make their jobs easier.

As Bousquette explained, “Part of the friction around building trust comes when the algorithm is supplanting an existing worker’s expertise.” Add to this the fact that AI recommendations aren’t always accurate (it can take years to hone accuracy to 100%) – and that it is the employee that must confront an irate customer when the results are wrong – and the need to respect and involve experienced employees becomes clear.6

The upshot? Managers should show respect, especially for their most experienced employees, by seeking their input – not just regarding how they feel about the technology, but in what ways they could see it being used to make their jobs better.

Fan flames of interest, let it spread

At 11:11 Partners, a human capital management consultant firm, Samir Wagle, owner and partner, was not too busy to listen to a team member who approached him tentatively with an interest in AI. “I encouraged her to take a look, during work hours, at the technology and services available in order to see how they could help her with parts of her job. We allowed her to self-enroll in courses about AI and prompt engineering, and in those courses, she developed key insights as to how AI could optimize our workflow. Our conversations ultimately helped shape our company’s philosophy regarding the usage of AI,” he explained.7

Responding positively to employee interest and creating a sense of manager-team member partnership mirrors the reality of AI as a partnering of technology skills (analyzing massive data and conducting repetitive tasks) with human skills (creativity, empathy, and critical thinking).

It’s even possible employees will become so accepting of AI, they will experience it not only improving their jobs but also their mental health. Researchers in China, a global AI leader, used data from the 2018 China Labor Force Dynamics Survey to examine how the integration of AI into manufacturing affected workers’ mental health (or depressive symptoms). The study found AI capable of reducing depression in manufacturing workers, particularly among lower skilled workers and workers born before the 1980s.8

Now is not the time to ‘oversell’ your AI

In today’s social media-driven society, fact-checking has become ubiquitous due to a growing tendency to make huge, possibly unsubstantiated claims about almost anything. Resist the temptation when it comes to  communicating about your company’s AI initiatives and products – and what they can do – particularly in your marketing/advertising, but also to your employees.

Artificial intelligence is “an ambiguous term with many possible definitions. It often refers to a variety of technological tools and techniques that use computation to perform tasks such as predictions, decisions, or recommendations. But one thing is for sure: it’s a marketing term. Right now, it’s a hot one,” says Michael Atleson, an attorney with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices.9

He says companies need to be careful when they communicate about their advances, specifically:

  1. Does your product or service really use AI? (Assess your use against accepted industry definitions.)
  2. Are you exaggerating what your product or service can do?
  3. Are you aware of the risks and possible penalties of making false claims, given that you cannot blame a third-party or claim the impossibility or difficulty of conducting testing?

Making claims that cannot be supported runs the risk of civil penalties, potentially large ones. “The requirement for advertisers to have adequate support for their advertising claims at the time they’re made is a bedrock principle of FTC law,” said Sam Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.10

With careful communication, AI excites

In its June 2023 report, “The economic potential of generative AI: The next productivity frontier,” McKinsey & Co. said generative AI could add $2.6 trillion to $4.4 trillion to the global economy, with 75% of its value in four areas: customer operations, marketing and sales, software engineering, and research and development (R&D), with all industries feeling the impact, banking, high tech, and life sciences most emphatically.

“Excitement over this technology is palpable, and early pilots are compelling. But a full realization of the technology’s benefits will take time, and leaders in business and society still have considerable challenges to address,” says McKinsey.

Arguably, one challenge for companies is communicating effectively to employees, customers, and the public at large about AI implementations to create a foundation of trust and partnership for a strong future. 


NOTES

  1. Business and Labor Square Off Over AI’s Future in American Workplace,” by Ryan Tracy. The Wall Street Journal. July 19, 2023.
  2. What is Blue Ocean Strategy? Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Global Network.
  3. How workers can harness ‘AI-xiety’ to embrace the impending tech tsunami,” by Julie Winkle Giulioni. Fast Company. April 5, 2023.
  4. AI and Machine Learning: 3 Steps to Prepare Your Culture for AI,” by Jared Spataro, leader of Microsoft’s Modern Work and Business Applications team. Harvard Business Review. June 28, 2023.
  5. How to build employee trust as AI gains ground,” by Lucas Mearian. Computerworld. August 15, 2023.
  6. AI Promised to Make Jobs Easier. Workers Weren’t So Sure,” by Isabelle Bousquette. The Wall Street Journal. June 27, 2023. [subscriber content]
  7. How to Cultivate Your Employees’ Artificial Intelligence Skillset,” by Samir Wagle, Forbes Business Council member. Forbes. August 14, 2023.
  8. Wei W, Li L. The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on the Mental Health of Manufacturing Workers: The Mediating Role of Overtime Work and the Work Environment. Frontiers in Public Health. April 2022;10:862407.
  9. Keep your AI claims in check,” by Michael Atleson, attorney, FTC Division of Advertising Practices. Federal Trade Commission. February 27, 2023.
  10. FTC Warns Almost 700 Marketing Companies That They Could Face Civil Penalties if They Can’t Back Up Their Product Claims,” (news release). Federal Trade Commission. April 13, 2023.