Two businessman integrating giant gears on a hilltop, making them turn. - AI and Collaboration in the workplace concept
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This is part 2 of a 4 part series on digital workplace technologies, sponsored by Beezy.

Your employees are smart. That’s probably why you hired them. There’s nothing artificial about their intelligence — their knowledge and skills have been hard-earned and developed over the course of their careers. Whether you employ the best financial managers or customer success professionals, or the most capable drivers and equipment techs in the business, what they know and how to perform their job is an important part of these employees’ identities. So, when the term “artificial intelligence” starts popping up, it often leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. AI is supposed to be a game-changer, using technology and data to automate and out-perform the same tasks that people do today. “But,” our employees wonder, “how can a machine do what I do even better?” The concept of AI strikes an existential chord in employees because on the surface, it implies that our knowledge and skills are a commodity rather than who we are and what we have achieved.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, today’s digital workplace stakeholders have an opportunity to change the conversation about AI, using existing collaboration platforms as a vehicle for inclusion and slow, steady change. AI increases the value proposition of the digital workplace and specifically enterprise collaboration systems. 

At the same time, there are key challenges that digital workplace stakeholders must overcome before we fully enter the brave new world of AI making strides in how we run our businesses. First, there’s the challenge of current digital workplace adoption. If we don’t have critical mass of our employees working inside our collaboration systems, AI-powered improvements will only make an impact on those who have opted-in. Second, there’s the challenge of language. Most AI-enthusiasts talk about AI at a 10,000-foot level, with buzzwords and lofty aspirational value propositions that don’t resonate with the bulk of your employees.

Digital workplace leaders can take three steps to address these challenges, helping employees overcome the fear of AI while simultaneously improving collaborative behaviors and platform usage that set the foundation for future AI adoption.

Related Article: Getting Digital Workplace Personalization Right with Good Technology and Better Practices

Drop the Buzzwords

The way that we as technology professionals think and talk about AI with our constituents has to change. Many employees are concerned that AI will put their livelihood in question, and with good reason to believe it. Just look at reports such at McKinsey’s “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained” report from November, 2017. They estimate that about 15% of full time employees (about 400 million) will be displaced by AI by 2030. And, 50% of current work activities can be automated by that same time. The report contains language exciting to the researchers, but alarming for the everyday employee. There’s a “rich mosaic of potential shifts” that will result in significant “labor substitution,” meaning that “globally, up to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills.”

That may all be true in the future. But for today’s employee, digital workplace leaders should stick to making the language of AI relevant to the work employees need to do today, and how the current (and not future) state of AI at the organization can help employees perform better. This includes humanizing language about technology, articulating the benefits to people that current technology offers. If a piece of technology can help employees save time and reduce manual errors, those employees can feel more confident that they’re better serving customers or focusing on a core value, like safety. Talk about technology as an enabler, and how the resulting work improvements will help the individual employee connect better with their own stakeholders.

Work on Collaborative Behaviors

Enterprise collaboration platforms still suffer from a lack of adoption at many companies. The “if you build it, they will come” mentality that precipitated mass unstructured launches of these platforms has many organizations now staring into virtual social graveyards. Before digital workplace teams start to talk about AI, they need to work on truly changing behaviors in the workplace to adopt existing collaborative platforms. If our teams aren’t collaborating with each other, how can we expect them to become “AI Citizen Users” — tasked with working with people and with these brand new AI systems?

Getting the people component right comes first. Companies need to invest in community management as well as training employees how to use existing collaborative platforms to do their jobs more effectively. Once collaborative behaviors are supported more formally, there will be a stronger foundation for AI-powered work.

Showcase How Existing Platforms are Already Powered by AI

Most collaboration platforms already have a bit of AI baked in, but users may not realize this. Digital workplace leaders can showcase the features and functionality that employees depend on every day, explaining at a simple level how AI is already helping them get work done. For example, in a collaboration hub, a smart newsfeed that surfaces what employees need to know at the right time is one of the easiest embodiments of AI. Other features such as suggested connections, suggested posts, and predictive text or images are all powered by AI. Coupling these types of features with a more simple language about their value can show employees that, in today’s state of affairs, AI is already here to help, and it’s quite effective (and not scary).

Meeting Employees Where They Are

Digital workplace leaders talk about meeting employees where they are by providing best in class tools that mimic a consumer experience. At the same time, it’s important to take our own advice and meet employees where they are when we talk about AI. Our employees’ work today matters, and how they accomplish their work and how they feel about work matters. While it’s important for us to think about how people will work in ten or fifteen years, we need to give our workforce the skills to work with the tools and resources we actually have right now. Humanizing the concept of AI and supporting employees as they navigate our current web of collaborative tools is the first step toward creating collaborative behaviors that will set the stage for future AI adoption.