How can organizations today build ethical AI cultures for tomorrow?

In an unregulated landscape, it’s up to leaders to map out an ethical AI strategy and bring the whole workforce on the journey with them.

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How can organizations today build ethical AI cultures for tomorrow?

In an unregulated landscape, it’s up to leaders to map out an ethical AI strategy and bring the whole workforce on the journey with them.

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Following on from our article, What can AI offer the profoundly human practice of coaching?, we explore how to equip leaders for the challenges of an AI-enabled world. To empower their workforce, leaders must focus on transparency, honest communication, and upskilling – set within a clear ethical frame. 

The IMF recently estimated that almost 40 percent of global employment is exposed to AI, rising to 60 percent in advanced economies. This has significant implications for every organization and workforce. We know that AI presents immense opportunities for innovation, but “we get excited without understanding what we’re getting excited about or what kind of downsides there are,” says Terence Tse, Professor of Finance at Hult International Business School. And organizations are largely unprepared for implementing AI.  

In the face of advanced digital technologies like AI, the nature of leadership has to change, and HR and other leaders can use their organizational intelligence to ensure it plays a positive role in their business. They should develop an ethical, human-centric approach, establishing trust and getting people comfortable with AI. “This depends on becoming digital savvy themselves and upskilling the entire workforce,” says Priya Guha MBE, Adjunct Faculty at Hult International Business School. “By supporting employees’ understanding of the technology, we can enable them to make good judgments about AI.” 

Embed ethics into the AI strategy

At the moment, there’s no mandatory AI ethics framework at national or international level, such as the World Medical Association’s International Code of Medical Ethics. Instead, organizations are merely urged to apply generic voluntary principles like accountability, fairness, and transparency to their work in AI. Leaders should seek to build transparent AI systems free of negative qualities such as discrimination and bias. “These ethical issues aren’t being discussed enough or taken seriously enough,” says Piper Frangos, Doctoral Fellow, Leadership Lab, Hult International Business School. “I fear it could take something catastrophic to create such urgency that leaders start considering these issues and weaving them into their strategy.” 

If you’re a forward-thinking leader, you’ll need to establish basic ethical AI practices that may not yet be embedded in terms of legislation,” says Guha. “It’s a great example of where you, as a leader, need to think through how your own adoption of AI relates to the values and mission of your business.” She adds: “The reality is that we’ll need to recruit people who think about the ethics and values side alongside recruiting pure tech talent.” One aspect of the ‘AI ethicist’ role will be ensuring that the organization adopts a human-centered AI culture.  

Acknowledge employee perceptions and fears

The speed of AI-driven transformation can appear alarming. “Almost every day something new appears, changing how things work or even changing the landscape altogether,” says Tse. Workforces must therefore accustom themselves to the concept of evolutionary uncertainty. “There won’t necessarily be an end-goal that you can articulate, but you need to get employees comfortable with the journey,” says Guha.

What leaders must do is take their employees with them, so you minimize that sense of fear and uncertainty.

Priya Guha MBE, Adjunct Faculty at Hult International Business School

A negative response to AI can easily lead to inertia. “People then step away from the relatively straightforward tools and opportunities that can be easily adopted into most mainstream businesses,” says Guha. How, then, should organizations best enable leaders to take employees on the AI journey? 

Encourage a well-informed, organization-wide conversation about AI

Leaders need to know enough about AI to make credible decisions on the technology, ones that make their business more productive. And recognizing the limits of their knowledge is a key part of embracing AI, by exploring new ideas and learning from an array of sources. “The more digital savvy the leadership and the more conversations you’re having across the different leadership teams, the greater the impact you’re going to have,” says Frangos. 

Communication, transparency, and trust should be ingrained in the workplace culture. Therefore, it’s important to have an inclusive mindset about bringing employees into conversations early on in the design of AI solutions. “There’s an opportunity for HR,” says Frangos, “to act as a conduit between leadership and the entire organization by embedding AI in an ongoing dialog that flows across all levels.”  

Don’t downplay the impact – upskill the workforce

Senior leaders should take ownership of training across the organization to ensure that people understand AI, what it offers internally, and how AI-based solutions fit into the competitive landscape. “Where we’re lagging behind,” says Guha, “is in recognizing the need for an almost constant upskilling of the workforce.” Whichever department they’re in – HR, legal, marketing – people will be using AI in some shape or form to become more effective. Everyone needs to upskill, and it’s incumbent on leaders to recognize that it doesn’t just apply to a small section of their organization. 

People should be encouraged to experiment with a variety of AI tools, such as large learning models like ChatGPT, to become comfortable with using them. “Set the parameters – what people can use them for and what they can’t use them for,” says Tse. “They’ll come to trust AI more, that it won’t adversely affect them or create anxiety.” HR have a key role to play in upskilling – assessing employees’ expertise, their familiarity with AI and the organization-wide competency, before drawing up the overall strategy.

Start planning the ethical AI future now

As AI matures, and it starts to solve complex business problems and align with people’s roles and responsibilities, employee acceptance of the technology will grow. This requires strategic planning, long-term investment, and honesty and transparency from leaders about the potential impact on employees. “If we can get it right at the individual and organizational level,” says Frangos, “the hope is that we are building an ethical, beneficial technology into the future.” 

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