• Leadership

Artificial Intelligence for Executives

The University of St. Gallen’s Stephanie Schoss discusses the mindset, skills and knowledge needed for executives to thrive in an AI enhanced world


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Thousands of business leaders are now grappling with the changes being brought about by the coming of AI—keen to take advantage of all that AI has to offer, but concerned too with how to retrain or redeploy staff who’s jobs will soon be automated. The first priority must be to ensure that senior managers develop the attitudes necessary to succeed as they introduce these game-changing new technologies.

Stephanie Schoss

Developing these attitudes—the mindset, skills and knowledge—is the core aim of a new online program, AI for Executives, from the University of St Gallen. In a recent discussion with IEDP, Stephanie Schoss, Director of Open Enrolment Programs at the University of St. Gallen Executive School of Management, Technology and Law (ES-HSG), described the driving forces behind this timely program.

An exponential mindset for the AI executive

Having the right mindset to thrive in the AI era does not involve thinking like a data scientist, rather it is about understanding the exponential, all-enveloping, nature of AI and having a vision for how AI can be harnessed to benefit your organization. “It's not about learning all technical details,” says Schoss, “because eventually if you dive too deeply into technical details, you might fail to see the big picture, the possibilities, and the exponential development things can take on.”

Managers need to understand the basic structure of AI technology, but crucially to see the implications that the exponential growth of the technology is delivering. “It is not linear,” stresses Schoss, “We humans tend to think in a linear way, and corporate organizations work and plan in a linear way. We must understand that blockchain and AI are exponential technologies, and quantum computing will be even more exponential.” For managers to learn to love the change and embrace the disruption AI technologies will bring, “they need to really expand their thinking to this exponentiality. It is an exponentiality of risk, it is an exponentiality of development of industries of our world, but you can also have exponential impact.”

With the right mindset managers can be active creators in the journey; the importance of which is stressed by Schoss, “AI is offering opportunities to solve the biggest challenges of humankind. It has also a big power to destroy or to shift ecosystems, or existing power systems in the world. I don’t think leaders can step back from that discussion. They have to learn to take an educated technological bet and understand how industries, businesses and business models will change and vanish and evaporate; what new technologies can bring and what new worlds they can create.”

That is what is needed. But unfortunately, as she observes, “There is a big blockage at the moment.” Rather than developing a vision for the future, too many companies are focused on their core, traditional business and the current needs of their existing clients. A situation perhaps worsened by the COVID crisis, as companies hunker down to survive its uncertain economic consequences.

Though, perhaps it is not that black and white. There are some signs that the COVID crisis has been a powerful jolt to kickstart the adoption of new ways of operating, new business models, new ways of working. There is a joke question going around, says Schoss: “Who is driving digitalization of your company most? Your CTO? Your head digital or COVID-19?”

Leading in and through AI

“I don't believe that managers need to learn coding,” says Schoss. “The job of the leader is to hold the vision and create the future.” To do this they need to understand some converging technologies, the history, and the breakthroughs that explain the exponential growth. The essential skills that will make an effective leader in an AI enhanced workplace are; critical strategic thinking, complex thinking, creativity, judgement, emotionally intelligent leadership, empathy, and feeling comfortable with change and ambiguity. These are more important than the rational, analytical, logical thinking skills—highly rated in the past—but which can now be achieved by machine learning algorithms.

“A business leader is not meant to change to become a tech specialist but broaden their mindset and embrace the change,” emphasizes Schoss. “If they have the vision, and if he or she can attract the right people and build a high-performance team and organization—which will be more and more blended and augmented between human and technology—then my educated guess would be that someone from a non-technical background who embraces the different sides and synergies can be a better leader than a good tech person, who’s immersion in the details may sometimes even hinder their thinking.”

Opportunity-spotting and business model innovation

There are two distinct but complementary approaches to realising the enormous opportunities presented by AI. The first, the low-hanging fruit, is around business process improvement. Many ‘plug-in’ solutions—software and services—exist already, and the organization can take advantage of these to deliver business efficiencies.

The second is to do with having a vision for the future. Here, suggests Schoss, “You need to think about the impact AI will have on your business, on your products, on the whole industry—and apply this exponential thinking to what else will be there instead of what you’re offering today. That is the greater task—relevant to all industries.”

In creating new business models it is important to realise you cannot do it alone. We need, as Schoss recommends, “to create alliances, to adopt a collaborative way of creating the future. This is common in Silicon Valley but something that we have not embraced in our traditional business world. We need to think about collaborative systems. Think about a ‘circular economy’, think about ‘open source’, think about new structures of companies.”

Finally, and underpinning all of the above, organizations need to take control of their data, to understand data structures and treasure data as an asset. They need to know how to mine and harvest it. “To understand the currency of data, and understand that who holds the data, holds the power.” In this, European organizations are well behind the curve. Not only are the big tech companies gaining increasing power through data, but China in particular is building power through data.

Big Tech and big ethical risks

There are many potential pitfalls that the successful AI executive needs to guard against. Google and Facebook have been criticised many times for how the algorithms they use deliver fake news, hate speech, or outright dangerous information. The use of machine learning—based largely as it is on past experience—can throw up many anomalies. The UK Government’s use of algorithms to grade the exams results of children who, due to the COVID lockdown had not completed their courses, created a storm of protest; as did a Government agency’s use of an algorithm to define which areas of the country are ripe for future house building. From a neuropsychology perspective, as Schoss points out, “Fairness is one of the most essential, emotional, basic needs that we have. You unleash enormous negative emotions when you feel you're treated unfairly.” A leader must know how to use the technology to augment decision making but must learn at the same time how to apply emotional intelligence and judgement.

The biggest risk of all around AI ethics, is not about making wrong judgments, but about the massive shift of power in the world. “Nations become unimportant compared to the power that Google and Facebook hold,” observes Schoss, “That is why it needs good and educated leaders in the world who use the AI for the right purposes, for good purposes, who are collaborative, and who can create positive synergies. That's why I see it's an obligation for leaders to educate themselves. It's not just about having a proactive tech strategy. It's also a prerequisite and a defence, for leaders to be in there, and to be engaged in these changes.”

Our Executive Education programmes are characterised by its high level of relevance for current practical issues, by drawing on the latest results in research.

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