No, this is not science fiction.
I recently attended The New York Times New Work Summit, held February 25-26 in Half Moon Bay California. I participated with other leaders who gathered to discuss and learn about leading in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to the forums and panels, I interviewed AI experts from Microsoft, a sponsor of the summit.
If you follow my writing on Forbes or have read my books you know that as a society we’re in the process of multiple massive shifts happening all at once, and organizations are not prepared to respond.
This conference was about one of those massive shifts in particular – AI in the workplace.
This is not necessarily about robots taking over your job – AI comes in many forms, some of which you’ve probably already seen and used and not even realized it. Have you used the Microsoft 365 version of PowerPoint recently? You might have noticed that once you add a photo to a slide, a panel pops up on the right and offers you design ideas. It actually creates versions of your slide for you. That’s AI.
I’ll talk about the way companies are using AI to help people connect and communicate in more detail later.
But in general, I’m not here to get tactical about how you can use AI in your daily life. I’m here to get strategic: what does this workplace transition mean for leaders?
Your organizational culture is not ready for this.
Those of us who started our corporate careers 20 years ago or more were given a formula for success by our bosses: If you do these 10 actions you will drive these 20 outcomes. Multiply those actions and outcomes across a department, and then across an enterprise. Those outcomes gave the organization success. Silos were acceptable and even welcomed as a key part of the organizational structure because it made it easier and efficient for each of us to predict and focus on those actions that would drive those outcomes.
It doesn’t really matter what those actions and outcomes were. The important point here is that we were told what to do inside the box we were given.
That’s how most of us were raised in the corporate world.
At least two things have been changing over the past few decades that make that model obsolete: technology and people. New technologies used to take decades to change industries, now those transformations can happen in months.
Then, partly as a result of those new technologies, and largely as a result of demographic shifts in our populations – people have changed to the point at which individuals have more influence now in the marketplace and in the workplace. And if they don’t have the influence they want – if your organization doesn’t enable it – your people will leave. They want to elevate and activate their own capacity to contribute to the success of the company mission in their own way. See this Forbes series and this one for more on this new age of personalization.
We're dealing in a world with mass variance in people. But most of us formed our identities as leaders in the previous age – the age of actions, outcomes and boxes. Or what I like to call the age of standardization.
Enter a new technology like AI.
It holds a lot of promise for connecting and invigorating a workforce, but only if that workforce is ready to learn it, use it and share it throughout the enterprise. And only if that workforce is led by people who are willing to adapt the systems and the organizational culture accordingly.
Are today’s leaders ready for that? Not yet.
A vision for the future.
Anton Andrews runs the Office Envisioning team at Microsoft. His team explores the changing world of work. Before joining Microsoft, he was a creative director at Phillips Design, and before that he had another life working in cancer research as a genetic engineer.
With such a varied background, he is the embodiment of one of the things he talked about at the summit: the speed of change today, and how we adapt.
“We all want to contribute, we want to be recognized, we want to make a difference, we want to be a part of something,” said Andrews. “Yet the world that we're working in has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Mankind has spent 20 years wiring the world together into a huge network. Information flows faster now. The speed and volume at which data is being generated is increasing exponentially and, on top of that, AI is about to transform entire industries. When you take all of this together, tomorrow becomes uncertain.”
When you think about it, that old action-to-outcome template I mentioned earlier only works in a relatively stable business environment. Once the outcomes start to become uncertain, those actions will no longer be reliable in driving success.
In a panel discussion, Andrews defined the challenge: “The traditional management mindset, the traditional way we've run our companies – with efficiency-based processes, doing the same thing repetitively at scale – those things no longer work well in this environment where everything is constantly changing around you. This becomes a survival challenge. How are you going to evolve, and adapt, and respond? How are you, as an individual, going to learn, constantly? How is your team going to learn? How are you going to make use of the knowledge you have, in order to stay in step with the world as it's changing around you?”
Good questions. I spoke with Andrews separately over the course of two interviews, to explore these questions further.
AI powers a new spectrum of engagement.
If we’re no longer standardizing actions and outcomes, and if individuals want to contribute their talents and skills toward the company mission in their own ways, then are we just headed for chaos? How would that even work?
Turns out, AI can help.
Andrews envisions what he calls a spectrum of engagement for employees within an organization. He described it like this: “I can engage with this project over here at a level that works for me. I may just have a tiny little tidbit that I want to throw in, or I might have some thoughts about the project and I want to brainstorm with you to help you, or I might want to become involved in the project as a consultant, or I might want to go all in and just be on the project.”
He described the team-department-silo approach that we’re all used to and pointed out why that doesn’t work anymore.
“We have this idea that I'm going to hire a bunch of people and magically that team is going to be the exact right fit for every project we’re ever going to do for the next 10 years,” he said. “It's a completely ludicrous idea. I built that team to the best of my knowledge, and the best of my abilities with the best people I could attract. It was probably a really good team the day I built it. Is it going to be the best team going forward for every project? Probably not.”
For years I’ve believed this was true, and in fact I train leaders to help them develop the skills needed in this kind of marketplace – you need to know how to get beyond your title and department to identify what you solve for, and to help the people you lead identify what they solve for.
What you solve for is an unusual phrase. It’s deeper than a job title or description. It’s a combination of your skills, expertise, interests, your capacity, capabilities and experiences. It’s what you enjoy and consistently think about in a big way. It’s how you serve others, yourself and your organization.
Think about what problems you are typically drawn to, and what kinds of solutions you favor. Now imagine a company structured in such a way that you could constantly map your “solve” to various projects or challenges being tackled throughout the enterprise – no matter the department, the business unit, or the function. What an intriguing way to work.
Andrews calls this a human network. It might be possible using AI.
The tools – what do we mean by AI in the workplace?
The AI I’m referencing here is a set of capabilities in Microsoft 365. Microsoft uses an interconnected dataset of world knowledge, organizational knowledge, and individual knowledge, called the Microsoft Graph, as the foundation for its AI capabilities. According to Microsoft, it has the largest graph ever created of human activity while at work. They can train their AI models using the huge volume of interactions that occur in Microsoft 365—420 billion per month in Office alone.
“When we talk about AI helping in a modern workplace, we're thinking about ways to augment employee skills,” said Malavika Rewari, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Microsoft 365.
She said they are infusing intelligence throughout Microsoft 365 to address these trends:
According to Rewari, AI has the opportunity to help employees streamline teamwork, find information, and make better decisions, and then help with security as well.
“Those are exactly the areas we're focused on with everyday AI Microsoft 365,” she said. “It's not AI for a data scientist. All those things exist, but what we're talking about is AI for every knowledge worker, so they can be a better writer, or better presenter, or run more effective meetings.”
She described Microsoft’s broader strategy as having AI so it’s there when you need it, but quietly fades into the background when you don't want it there. They’ve learned that people want to feel like they're the hero of the situation, that the technology is in the background helping them be the best they can be. So that PowerPoint slide I mentioned earlier? You get help creating something that looks great, but you also feel a sense of accomplishment that you did it yourself.
Other capabilities foster teamwork. Using Microsoft Teams, employees can communicate with colleagues who speak different languages by providing real-time translation of chat messages. With meeting recording capabilities in Teams, invitees who miss a meeting can watch it on demand using Microsoft Stream. They can also search across audio to find action items and catch up with work quickly and easily.
PowerPoint provides on-screen subtitles in the spoken language or one of 60+ translated languages – while a presentation is being delivered live.
Finding insights by turning Excel data into pivot tables or charts no longer requires special expertise. Now, Ideas in Excel helps identify trends, patterns, and outliers in a dataset and provides suggestions on the best charts to present the insights—helping employees analyze and display their data in seconds and enabling better, faster decisions.
Workplace Analytics identifies how employees across an organization spend their time and provides insights into how groups collaborate. You can see bright spots (those who are doing well), and also hot spots (those who seem burned out).
“Once you understand what about their behavior is unique, you can scale that out to others,” said Rewari. “Same thing with effective managers. You might find that they religiously have one-on-ones with their employees every week. You might find that their networks are more distributed, so they're making connections for those employees that other managers are not.”
She shared an example of how this level of insight could help leaders. One of their customers said their engineering team was looking burned out but management didn’t know why. They had a few guesses – they thought maybe it was because the team members are geographically distributed, and they have meetings after hours because no particular time zone works for everyone. They also knew that the product lifecycle was close to launch, and that can be intense.
“When they looked at the data, they realized it wasn't the product lifecycle, and it wasn't the geography,” said Rewari. “It was leadership sending emails on Sunday night. That had a trickle-down effect. Once you know the problem, the [Workplace Analytics] product has the ability to give you suggestions, like clarifying urgency [in those Sunday night emails]. Within the message, I can say not urgent, or reply requested in a week, so that people don't feel pressured to reply as soon as possible.”
If one of your organizational values is to encourage people to be more gender-aware in the language they use, AI in the Editor in Word tool can help there as well.
“If you type congressman or policeman, you're not being gender neutral,” said Rewari. “The tool will make suggestions. Instead of mailman, it might suggest mail person. Instead of policeman, police person. But you're in control.”
Does AI enable inclusion? Or vice versa?
The idea of the spectrum of engagement, enabled by all of these tools that help us work better and connect with each other – all of this is impossible until we resolve inclusion.
An inclusive organization is one that builds systems that actively enable people to:
Inclusion is active: It’s a system for making sure the organization is welcoming at every level to every individual.
Clearly, some of these AI tools can help us be more inclusive.
But the tools will only help if the organizational culture enables inclusion. I’m not just talking about inclusion as it relates to diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity or generation. I’m talking about a mindset of constructively disrupting our auto-pilot thoughts about who belongs where, doing what. It’s so easy for us to put people in those boxes I mentioned.
If someone was hired into Department A, we start to see them as on the Department A career track, so we direct them to training opportunities that focus on skills relevant to advancing within Department A. It becomes harder for leaders to see that person beyond his Department A identity. And that makes it harder for him to expand his influence.
This is the larger role of inclusion (beyond the usual diversity box we put it in) – it can help us create the structure needed for an organization to embrace that spectrum of engagement that Andrews mentioned.
Andrews agreed that it can be a challenge to get people to start thinking beyond the traditional boxes: “You might be in marketing, and you might want to contribute an idea to engineering,” he said. “The response – ‘You're not an engineer, you're in marketing.’ You have no permission, even.”
In the workplace, we've controlled the individual to a point where we've created this identity crisis where we really don't know how individuals can best contribute. In the age of standardization we didn’t learn how to identify this about ourselves, let alone for other people.
If we have organizational cultures that are truly inclusive, AI can help propel that inclusion as a growth strategy.
Getting ready. Who’s responsible? IT? HR?
But first things first. Who will make this work in an organization?
There's a layer in between the launch of AI and where we are now. The people in the audience at the summit, they're ready. They're excited. But they are not really prepared, and neither are their organizations.
“I think you're right,” said Andrews. “There is this kind of readiness challenge because we've been brainwashing ourselves for the last 100 years that efficiency is the way to run everything. And it’s not. It's this kind of effective responsiveness. This ability to adapt. This ability to stay in sync with very rapid change outside the network of the organization that I happen to be in. Am I metabolizing information as fast as the rest of the world? If not, I have a big problem.”
AI may enter the workforce through IT or through some other innovation group, but it will only permeate a culture if the people use it. And who is in charge of people? HR. But HR is generally the department that is least-prepared for massive change. The role has historically been focused on compliance-related goals, but it needs to evolve to play a role in organizational strategy so that HR can start to build an organizational culture that is ready for transformations like AI.
“More and more, I think that there's a huge cultural role for HR to play that is about really deeply understanding leadership and employee engagement, and how to capitalize both of those things,” said Andrews. “Because a lot of leaders aren't ready, and even employees are not ready in many ways, because they've become used to working in a way that isn't actually a very good fit for them. And the same with managers. This is how we've always done things, I grew up this way, I spent the last 20 years running teams this way, why are you telling me to change?”
That’s why the role of leaders is so critical – whether in the C-suite or overseeing a team within a department.
“HR should play a huge role in this. But they can't do it alone. They also need the tools. It would be terrible if we work for some large organization, and we have a very forward-thinking HR department [or other leaders], and we tell everyone, ‘Hey, you're going to be super engaged, you're going to be able to self-select into projects, you're going to have a spectrum that you can engage at your comfort level, you're going to bring your whole self to work, you're going to be able to learn as you go. It’ll be fantastic.’ And then the tools aren't there to support it, the whole thing falls apart. It's chaos.”
One of the promises of AI in the workplace is that it will streamline things like communication and meetings. But, again, the organization has to be ready for it in a few ways – having the tools available, and also having put some thought into what work will look like as a result. You can’t just introduce a new technology and then say: “Now we don’t need to have any more meetings.” That’s like pulling a crutch away suddenly. There will be wobbles unless you’ve already built up the muscles that provide balance.
“I've seen leaders remove meetings for all the right reasons, and then engineering teams are just ground to a halt,” said Andrews. “Panic has ensued. People have revolted because they don't know what they're supposed to be doing. They lose faith in leadership. ‘Why did we cancel that meeting?’ And yet those meetings were seen as fairly useless. And so, you sort of have to be very careful and intuitive and methodical with the rollout because you can't just say ‘we just need AI and that's it’ to create a marketplace.”
I’m a big proponent of the potential influence HR can have not just on hiring, but on how work gets done in an organization. This is a great example of the urgency for HR to think through how people work and how AI can change it, and what kind of preparation is needed so that people will be ready.
Because AI is coming, ready or not. And a dozen other changes are coming, ready or not.
“You will not be around in 5 to 10 years unless you are able to evolve with the changes in the world around you,” said Andrews. “Not once a year, not once a month, but once a day. This becomes a critical issue for organizations as we look at the future of work and innovation, and that's why our vision is amplifying human ingenuity and creativity. Because innovation is the thing, in the end, that helps you adapt and respond.”
All leaders need to evolve from the standardization they learned early on to the personalization that is the reality today. Technology will continue to change. People will continue to change. If you don’t build an organizational culture that can adapt – and that will empower your people to adapt – your competitors will pass you by.