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In the Emerging GenAI Landscape, People, Leadership, and Culture Are More Essential Than Ever

Six Strategies Every Company Should Emphasize NOW for GenAI Success

Six Strategies Every Company Should Emphasize NOW for GenAI Success

By Keith Werle
Professor of Business Analytics and Managing Director, Business Analytics Center

The advent of GenAI has triggered an unprecedented deluge of information, misinformation, sales hype, and cautionary tales, creating an environment that is both bewildering and — to some — terrifying. The sheer volume of content has left many leaders in a state of paralysis, hesitant to explore, or even allow GenAI until they can discern fact from fiction. According to a recent study by Evanta, 40% of data and analytics leaders are still in the process of developing an approach to AI tools, but do not have one yet; 30% are allowing specific employees to use the tools; and only 19% allow open access at their organizations.

The stakes are high. Delayed exploration of this powerful technology could result in companies losing their competitive edge, market share, and most critically, their top talent.

Surprisingly, it’s not the technical aspects of GenAI that create the most concern — or the most risk. The high-tech challenges and shortcomings of GenAI are being addressed and overcome at a blinding pace with a constant stream of new plug-ins, announcements, capabilities, platforms, software, and services, all closing technical gaps nearly as soon as they are identified.

Take away the technical barriers and data challenges and you’re left with the always-important human element. Leveraging GenAI technology for business value requires getting all the “people-parts” right — the right people, the right skills, and the right culture. To help your company move forward, we’ve developed six actionable items that corporate leaders and teams can implement now to ensure their organizations are well-positioned for success in the GenAI-driven economy of the future.

  1. Craft and Communicate a GenAI Strategy

The necessity of having a GenAI strategy, even a rudimentary one, is not just beneficial, it's essential. This strategy should be articulated and disseminated across all levels of the organization, signaling to employees that leadership is fully engaged, focused on the critical business elements, and prepared to steer the organization through this period of disruption and beyond.

A number of executives we spoke to recently told us that their companies had banned employees from using or accessing ChatGPT, Bard, and/or any other open-source GenAI models. A blanket prohibition on GenAI tools like ChatGPT does not constitute a strategy; it’s a knee-jerk reaction — and not a particularly effective one. Such an approach risks disenfranchising a significant portion of your workforce, particularly those who are the most technologically adept. These employees are already exploring the possibilities, leveraging these tools, and honing and improving their skill sets. Companies who choose the AI avoidance route will soon discover that their most forward-thinking employees won’t stick around. They will take their newfound skills to organizations where they are valued — and where they see a future.

Crafting a strategy requires a pragmatic approach affirming the company’s commitment to developing and applying AI technologies where they align with business objectives. At the very least, express intent to invest where there is potential for clear return, and to actively explore and solicit ideas on how to achieve this. Any strategy will require constant refinement and recalibration, reflecting the dynamic nature of the GenAI landscape. Although it sounds like a drawback, consistently checking and course-correcting can actually demonstrate leadership's adaptability, commitment to continuous learning, and readiness to recalibrate based on emerging insights.

Your strategy does not need to be complex or even technical. Here’s our Center’s most recent version: “The Business Analytics Center will seek out, leverage, and invest in AI and GenAI technologies to enhance our educational and outreach offerings. We will foster a culture of engagement, adaptability, and continuous learning, constantly striving to equip our students, faculty, and industry partners with the skills necessary to navigate and shape the evolving landscape of business analytics.”

  1. Showcase Leadership Buy-in

Embarking on this GenAI journey demands more than just setting a strategic direction; it requires visible and active leadership.

Leadership should promote GenAI initiatives across the company, including allocating sufficient funds to meaningfully progress in this new direction. Involvement from the top could take the form of convening town hall meetings, demonstrations, or skill-building sessions. Bringing in external experts or coaches could infuse fresh perspectives and showcase potential opportunities, sparking new dialogues. A leader’s visible and active endorsement will be a catalyst for sustained growth and performance

The announcement of a dedicated investment strategy, the allocation of specific funds, and the provision of awards or prizes for employees to share their ideas can further underscore leadership commitment—and is an excellent way to encourage employee engagement. It's crucial to remember that it's not the early adopters who require the most attention, but rather the remaining two-thirds of the workforce. Leaders should instill confidence in their teams that they will collectively chart a course through this journey, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose.

  1. Promote a Culture of Safe Exploration, Experimentation, and Innovation

To drive out employee fear and foster GenAI adoption, organizations must invest in cultivating a culture that encourages exploration, creativity, and even playful experimentation. This could involve creating a safe environment where employees can learn and experiment, such as developing a rudimentary “sandbox” type model and making it accessible on the company's intranet (think Hugging Face or Llama2 among others).

While advocating for employees’ use of GenAI tools and sites at home is an option, it may be even more advantageous to promote this exploration within the office. By establishing clear boundaries and guidelines, organizations can ensure the safe and productive use of these technologies. As employees start to share their experiences and successes, a natural increase in interest and engagement is likely to follow. This type of learning, which is best achieved through trial and error, experimentation, and peer-to-peer sharing, also serves as an excellent community-building exercise by re-engaging and re-enfranchising employees at both ends of the spectrum – early adopters and laggards alike.

By facilitating this kind of playful exploration, organizations can stimulate creativity, which will be key to finding early and valuable use cases. This creativity can be further fostered by hosting knowledge-sharing meetings (similar to book clubs), brainstorming sessions, and even competitions. And it should be as important to celebrate failures as much as successes; they are integral to the learning process. Gamifying the experience and encouraging employees to submit ideas and examples can lead to even greater engagement, especially if incentives and recognition are added.

Training departments can play a crucial role in this journey by developing both online and in-person courses to support learning and promote the use of new and shared company applications. This initiative presents a significant opportunity to build community, foster inclusivity, and create a fun and engaging experience for employees.

  1. Foster Operational Agility

In the fast-paced world of GenAI, organizations will need to move at a pace previously unimagined — adapting at lightspeed to stay competitive. This calls for an equally challenging transformation in some organizational structures and operational processes; moving away from traditional software engineering and development teams towards more dynamic, skunkworks-style, SCRUM teams. These new, cross-functional groups, comprising diverse roles from across the company (IT, operations, marketing, strategy, sales, and support et. al.) will be an incubator for a wide array of innovative ideas and use cases.

The technical team will play a pivotal role as well: tasked with soliciting ideas for use cases, conducting evaluations, and determining feasibility and implementation costs. Their work will encompass everything from integrating GenAI into existing processes to discovering novel applications or even potentially developing assistant-like “co-pilot” tools. Leaders should resist the urge to exert control or influence at this stage, as great ideas and early use cases may originate from anywhere within the organization.

A key aspect of this strategy is to embrace rapid prototyping and continuous iteration. An idea conceived today could be a prototype tomorrow, tested by users, then refined and improved within days. This approach necessitates a shift in the understanding of “product” – and “product development”; moving away from exhaustive planning, and even flexible SCRUM type environments, towards swift execution and learning. The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) may even need rethinking. GenAI-based features and facilities will likely be in a state of perpetual “beta” as even the foundational technology of LLMs continues to evolve.

To facilitate this rapid pace of innovation, organizations must also streamline internal processes. This includes simplifying or even eliminating some approval steps, streamlining documentation, or breaking down other barriers to action and enabling a “ready-fire-aim” mentality. The emphasis needs to be on launching new features or products swiftly, soliciting feedback, and implementing improvements in near real-time. It will be critical to engage end-users in the testing and exploration of new features and functions and be able to stand up, replace, or retire earlier efforts without hesitation or delay.

However, the processes need to be grounded in open communication and foster a culture that views risk and failure as opportunities for learning and growth. By combining cross-functional, agile working groups, with safe spaces where employees can experiment, make mistakes, and learn without fear, organizations will cultivate a culture of incredible ideation and innovation to aid their GenAI journey.

  1. Retool and Reframe Your Discussion of Risk

To capitalize on GenAI innovations, organizations will need to recalibrate their approach to risk—how it is identified, quantified, mitigated—and, of course, how it is communicated. How risk is discussed inside the company can significantly influence leaders and employees alike. It is critical to extricate discussions of risk from hyperbole, internet horrors stories, and unfounded or unreasonable fears. Much of the doom mongering in the media is planted by those who profit from selling you solutions to risks that frankly don’t likely exist at all—or are mitigated by IT security technology and processes you already have.

Obviously, there are risks associated with the deployment of any such advanced technology within your company. However, the usual prudence and risk mitigation you undertake for many of your enterprise-data-centric applications should serve you well in this area too. With some standard care and user guidelines, you should be able to begin use and experimentation safely, without the risk of exposing any sensitive information to outsiders.

As you reconsider your risk, be realistic. For example, if you use GenAI to develop tools for customers to better understand your products or user manuals, is there really any risk to your company if new GenAI models absorb some information into their training sets? After all, since your website is already public, it is just as likely that it was already part of the foundational training set for the LLM.

And are “leaky” open-access LLMs really a risk to your enterprise data if you don’t put the data into the models? Remember, your employees could at any time take sensitive internal data and walk out the door with it—or post it online. GenAI hasn’t introduced this risk – that has been around for a few decades. The real risk isn’t in the technology as much as it is in giving boundaries and guidelines to employees utilizing it through governance, security, and training.

You can further minimize your risks by starting small. Develop GenAI use cases that can help employees or customers with information that is already available publicly. As you gain experience and technical ability, you can develop more complex systems. Most risks can be mitigated, and there are countless opportunities to add value without exposing sensitive information.

  1. But Don’t Ignore Real and Unintended Risks

Beware that the greatest threats could emanate from human factors within your own organization. The actions of malevolent individuals or the unintended consequences of poorly conceived policies, misguided incentives, or corrosive cultures can be the source of the greatest risk. Even employees with the best intentions can inadvertently contribute to these challenges when given the wrong incentives or goals.

Arming malicious actors with more powerful tools can lead to undesirable outcomes. Those who are driven by performance at any cost, or who adopt a 'by any means necessary' approach may now have access to tools that they could misuse.

Unfortunately, there is no cure-all for mitigating the very real risk posed by bad actors. Instead, focus on a robust foundational culture, with clear and shared values, ethical standards, and judiciously designed performance incentives across your organization. Finally, be vigilant and have plans set up to quickly counter fraudulent behavior.

Final Thoughts: The Human Element Will Make the Difference 

Leaders are faced with unprecedented opportunity—and unprecedented challenges as they face a future dominated by both AI and GenAI technologies. It is easy for leaders to feel overwhelmed about how, and when to move forward. However, the decision to sideline these technologies entirely until a clearer picture emerges will likely be a costly mistake.

In the midst of this technological revolution, it’s crucial to remember that the heart of any organization is its people. The successful integration of GenAI hinges not just on technical prowess, but on fostering a culture of shared purpose and achievement, innovation, inclusivity, and continuous learning.

The potential loss of talented, tech-savvy employees eager to engage with GenAI technologies should be a pressing concern for any executive today. These individuals in a company can help shape and guide real innovation and growth in the new reality. And they won’t sit still as new technologies pass them by — and neither should your organization.

Use the six strategies we’ve outlined above to develop a roadmap. The correct cultural foundation will not only help you retain and attract top talent, but it will also equip your entire organization for the road ahead. Most important? Involve employees at every level in your journey. At the end of the day, it’s the human element that will make the difference between surviving the transformation—and thriving in this new era.



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