Readying Our Organizations to Win in the Artificial Intelligence Age
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
We are living in an era where digital is changing mindsets, leading to complete disruption of private enterprises, nonprofits and government. It made me contemplate about who will emerge as the heroes of the era of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain, and more. Instead of techy computer and data scientists who rise to the top, as you might assume, I think it may actually end up being the savvy business professionals – individuals and teams who recognize the value of AI and begin dreaming, in partnership with skilled engineers.
Many of history’s great inventors did not discover the machines that define their fame. Henry Ford did not invent the automobile or the assembly line. Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, operating systems, computer software or computer coding. However, each of them was fascinated by the technology of their day and imagined how it could be harnessed, improved, commercialized and applied in different ways. The most powerful thing business leaders can do to win this age is this: inspire and empower all of your people to start imagining scenarios, use cases, situations and business moments that solve business problems with emerging digital technology.
Here's the bottom line: Everyone in your company does not need to know how to build new digital systems (leave that up to the product managers and engineers in your digital teams), but everyone (and I really mean every employee in your company) needs to be curious about their potential, ability and aspirations to deliver business value using digital as a core capability. There are five key steps business leaders can take to foster a culture of digital innovation and creativity – without creating chaos and disorder in our organizations.
Make onramps for future innovators.
Innovation starts with education and altering mindsets. If we as business leaders can provide foundational knowledge today to our teams across our organizations, we will be better-positioned to build the future. However, this education must come in different formats and consumption models that appeal to all generations. Be proactive. Offer opportunities inside and outside your company to learn, network and dig in to new digital capabilities – and bring those learnings back to your groups. One exciting example of employee engagement for us is the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute. As part of this unique partnership between UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University and Northwestern Mutual, our employees have professional development opportunities to build their knowledge and strengthen their skills.
Make innovation a habit.
Innovation is never one-and-done. Lifelong learning is something all organizations should commit to. Create a calendar of innovation opportunities for all audiences to engage. Host team conversations across the company to brainstorm use cases and identify the datasets needed to solve challenges. Organize events featuring speakers from prominent startups, startup accelerators and the venture capital community to inspire imaginative ideation. Consider adding accountabilities, too. Encourage employees on your teams to include technology-comprehension goals in their performance reviews. Make curiosity about technology a key competency and essential part of your team culture.
Make innovation accessible and part of the culture.
It’s critical to meet people where they are. When they understand the ground rules and develop a passion to learn more, give them easy-and-often opportunities to engage. At Northwestern Mutual, we regularly engage our leaders in conversations about technology and the capabilities they need to deliver the industry’s best client experience, protect client information, or create employee experiences and services that help them bring their best to work. But the conversations can’t end at our leaders’ desks. We are engaging employees and entrepreneurs, too. Through hackathons, venture capital investments, reverse pitch contests, Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute sponsorships with local universities, and the creation of our Cream City Labs innovation space, we’re creating focused opportunities for our teams to build the future. Instead of one-size-fits-all, our innovation comes in many sizes, flavors and channels.
Make innovation clear.
Opportunities for education and innovation are everywhere. Without definition, people with good intentions may spend a lot of time and energy taking a long road to nowhere that adds little to no value to your business. Leaders can spur strategic innovation by creating clear goals, aims and processes.
Broadly speaking, we’ve been clear that AI will not change our business model. Our financial planning is advisor-led today, tomorrow and into the future. People’s finances and emotions are too complex for digital-only financial planning solutions. However, incorporating new technologies like AI can create better experiences, advancing the work of our advisors and enabling our clients to reach their goals. We have a virtually-limitless list of potential AI applications, and many examples are already integrated into our digital experience: enhancing fraud detection and security, improving underwriting and claims processing, adding value through financial plan enhancement alerts and more. By setting goals and the strategy, you can inspire innovation that moves the business forward.
Make innovation a celebration.
Success begets success. As leaders, we need to showcase outcomes and celebrate our teams’ successes on a regular basis. Sometimes, it’s easy to finish a project and move on to the next thing without reflecting at what was done. If something “failed,” make time and the positive space to talk about what was learned. A few months ago, we hosted a “Toast to Learning” event where employees “flipped their flops” – sharing past failures and discussing how outcomes of those experiences led to innovative thinking.
What else can leaders do to inspire lifelong learning and a passion for digital innovation? Let me know.