sign with question "why" on top of a mountain
Sometimes in our rush to provide great customer experiences, we forget to ask the questions that matter PHOTO: Ken Treloar

Maybe they had a mean math teacher. Maybe they couldn’t program the VCR as a child and their sister never let them forget it. Maybe they’ve seen one too many science fiction movies where the sentient robots enslaved humanity. Whatever the reason, you as a manager, have a problem: some of your employees either fear AI or think it will be too hard to learn to use AI-based applications.

To be sure, developing artificial intelligence, or machine learning or some other variant in the AI ecosystem can be a complex undertaking, requiring organization's architects, analysts and developers to be highly proficient at software engineering, math and data science. But you are not asking your employees to do that. You just want them to use the applications.

Normally this would be the purview of IT but as AI moves increasingly down the application food chain, line of business workers are being required to use these systems, some of which are not very intuitive to use. It should be noted, though, that a lot of applications are embedding AI to make applications easier to use. Microsoft is doing this with Excel, for example. So too is Adobe with Sensei, its an automated virtual assistant.

But employees that do have a sense that mastering an AI app could be beyond them are not completely out of touch — even developers have found that machine learning can be difficult to learn. Difficulty with math is one key reason, writes Janakiram MSV, an independent analyst for Forbes.com. "Let’s admit it — Most of us are scared of math,” he writes. “Software development did not enforce the direct application of math. The availability of reusable math libraries and functions relieved developers from doing math the hard way. An average programmer doesn’t get to deal with mathematics on a day to day basis.”

Nor does the average employee, so it is little wonder some may be balking. Still, forward-looking companies are embracing AI and as they do, they need to ease their workers into using these applications. Fortunately there are ways to do that. Indeed it has been done before, albeit with other types of technological shifts. “The workplace shifts occurring from AI are not uncharted territory,” said Karl Giuseffi, director of Research for Talent Plus Inc.  “Previous generations experienced similar shifts as technological advancements changed their lives.” Those generations go through the change, and so will your employees.

The following are some suggestions to help ease and manage this evolution in the workplace.

Enabling An Agile Mindset

It is crucial that the organization’s internal culture is sustainable for AI, says Juan Jose Lopez Murphy, AI & Big Data Tech Director at Globant. This entails not only hiring and training employees for data skills, but also enabling an agile mindset, he said. Encouraging this is crucial as the ability to continually adapt and the willingness to experiment will be necessary when shifting to a new technology. Without it, Murphy said, “they won’t be able to evolve and pivot with the technology they’re implementing.”

Related Article: Take an Agile Approach to Process Improvement

Set Expectations

Describing what should be realistic expectations for employees in terms of what their learning outcomes will be is also important, said Ian Khan, technology futurist, author and speaker. If they expect to master something in a week when in reality it could take two weeks to feel adept with a technology, that will be a hindrance.

Help Workers Understand the Connection

Employees have been using a simplified version of AI for years without even realizing it — it may help to remind them of that, said Matt Grofsky, CTO of Ytel. Such programs include email spam detection, self-learning thermostats, mapping applications with traffic guided driving directions and driver-assist features in modern-day automobiles. “Drawing comparisons to these use cases can help employees visualize a direct connection between how they use AI in everyday activities and how it can serve their needs in the workplace,” Grofsky said.

Related Article: 6 Ways Artificial Intelligence Will Impact the Future Workplace

Break It Down Into Daily Decisions

Another way to reduce fear and increase adoption of AI is to focus on the daily decisions and tasks that rank-and-file employees need to make but don’t fully embrace, Murphy said. Connect with these workers and find the answers to the following questions.

  • What repetitive decision would you like to get rid of?
  • What information would you like to have available to make more efficient and better decisions?
  • What would you jettison to make your work more fulfilling?

The answers to these questions would not only help gain traction on AI but also find good candidates for impactful projects, he said.

Don’t Get Stuck in the Weeds

The focus of worker development needs to be on how these technologies will change work and developing skills and mindsets to take advantage of what changes the technology brings, said Jeff Mike, vice president, Human Resources Research Leader at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting. It shouldn’t focus too much on the underlying technology. “What percentage of non-IT workers currently dedicate time to understanding internet protocol, routers and data packets? I’d say very few,” Mike said. “But most know how to send an email, find a website or open an app to do their jobs. It will be the same with these advanced technologies currently on the verge of proliferating. Worker development should focus on problem solving, collaboration and the convergence of learning and work in the context of a specific role, business or industry.”