Why implementing AI needs cultural transformation and how to address it

Aug 20, 2021

Implementing Artificial Intelligence (AI) in an organization can come with numerous challenges. Often, companies tend to focus on technological obstacles and a strategy of how to deal with data and finding a way to solve the technological problems. However, when a company has realized that AI is already playing an important role and will do so increasingly in the future, there may be someone who will have strong opposing feelings. These objections can come in a variety of forms, such as openly disagreeing with the ideas and strategies initially proposed, deprioritizing the project or silently rejecting it.

Considering the fact that the potentials and benefits of AI may appear obvious to its proponents, this may come as a surprise. In this blogpost we will take a closer look on why implementing AI is part of a cultural transformation and how to address it.

Artificial intelligence - a cultural transformation

For many, AI is a completely new topic known from maybe journals, movies or competitions won by some algorithm playing against humans. That AI can actually be a true game changer for their own working environment is still something that seems intangible and quite far away. Yet, we have reached an era that is described as “Real-Digitalization” by the Zukunftsinstitut: Instead of a strict distinction and separation between reality and the digital world, we are now witnessing a shift towards a close interplay between both. The on- and offline dimensions are constantly melting together and we are experiencing the digital world as an additional layer to our cultural, social and professional life.

Often, executive levels (CEOs, CIOs, CDOs, etc.) have understood that AI is the way to go and have already focused on where to start. Meanwhile, many departments and their employees are consumed with addressing current operational challenges that considering AI as an option seems irrelevant. In other constellations, it may be the other way around: Departments want to implement AI functionalities, but executive levels deprioritize them and count them only as “nice-to-have’s”.

One factor this deprioritization is happening is the lack of understanding the extent of the role AI is already playing and will increasingly play in the future. Sooner or later, this will change. Another factor is the fear of change that eventually may come up when implementing new technologies in a company.

The fear of change

It is neither surprising nor a new that the majority of people reject changes in their familiar environment. There are many articles and blogs listing a variety of reasons for this fear but in general we can break it down to these 5:

  1. Confusion
  2. Lack of competence
  3. More work
  4. Losing control
  5. Fear of loss

Let’s take a brief, but closer look at them:

Not understanding why changes are being made and not being able to comprehend the meaning and importance of them may lead to confusion. People tend to oppose things they do not understand and begin to resist or become unwilling to cooperate.

The lack of competence raises the fear that employees will not be capable of doing what is expected of them once the changes have been implemented and they have to work with them. Most people are afraid of failure, especially in unknown environments.

When something new is introduced, it always requires a certain effort in order to adapt. This takes time, so one of the reasons people fear change is that it requires additional work and drives people out of their comfort zone.

Letting go of old habits is always a challenge, because it leads to concerns about losing control of a certain job role. Feeling powerless might lead to resisting certain changes.

The fear for loss describes an anxiety employees might have when changes are made and new things are introduced. They wonder what they will lose and have to give up. This can relate to a specific task or people they work with, but can also be an existential worry about losing their own job. Hence, the implementation of AI can be perceived as a threat to certain people.

These fears are natural and we find them in every area where we are confronted with a changing environment. This makes it all the more important to take these fears seriously and to consider them when implementing AI.

Living in a VUCA-World and how to deal with it

There is even an acronym describing the different challenges the globally connected and digitalized world of today is facing: VUCA. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and summarizes the framework conditions and core challenges that companies are confronted with and which are questioning existing structures. Technologies like i.e. (I)IoT, AI, Big Data or Blockchain are continuously fueling the VUCA-World and with other factors such as the Covid19 crisis, the need to be able to adapt and react quickly is even more crucial for companies.  

Obviously, living in a VUCA-World can be a factor for an increase of fear when changes are made and new technologies are introduced in a company. Information and communication are the keys to address those fears, to cope with VUCA and also to keep growing as a company.

Understanding changes and new technologies is the first big step to approach new environments. Then, explaining why things are done, what exactly is being done and how far it is going to affect individuals is the key to lowering barriers and increasing the willingness to accept change. In fact, focussing the communication on fears and certain worries can actually function as a trust building measure and engage employees even further and motivate them.

New technologies do not necessarily mean they increase VUCA when being implemented though. In fact, they are also able to help overcome these challenges. Let’s take Blockchain as an example: Due to its transparency and its decentralized structure, transactions can be made as secure as never before, reducing complexity for its users. Recommendation engines and forecasts can lead through uncertainty and help in decision making processes, taking various and numerous factors into account that would normally overwhelm a single person.

Adaptation, resilience and the skill to deal with complexities

Change is happening, it always has happened in the past and will do so in the future. AI is the central driver of digital transformation and the challenges in a VUCA-World require change management and the handling of human fears. Moreover, the interplay of reality and the digital world makes it increasingly necessary to push for a cultural transformation that enables people to adapt to change, build up resilience and deal with new complexities. If this is achieved, companies and its individuals will be able to enhance on a technological level and drive innovation on a new level.

How important is the cultural transformation within the digital transformation in your opinion? What are the biggest challenges? Feel free to comment below!

Svenja Schölermann

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