Story Highlights

  • Companies' AI implementations must align with their vision and purpose
  • The key is to set goals
  • Workers must share in, be accountable for and help create the vision

This article is the second in a series on how your organization can transform in the AI era. Read the first article, in this compelling seven-part series.

While AI will open the door for countless opportunities, it will be up to humans to make smart choices about which ones are truly worth pursuing. In the AI-dominated business world, winning isn't a matter of knowing how to do something. The tireless AI brain can figure that out. Winning is the result of knowing why to do something.

The why will increasingly define business success, while the how will be accomplished by intelligent machines.

Take Prudential Financial, for instance. The company developed a "robo adviser" and launched it in Taiwan. The tech gathers and sorts information and historical data about customer and financial markets and offers suggestions and solutions tailored to the individual customer. But it's not meant for customers, only for Prudential employees.

From a recent Q&A from Capgemini Consulting on AI and business: "We don't want to replace our [human] advisers -- they are a really important route to market for us. But we want to augment them and add to their capabilities," says Dr. Michael Natusch, Prudential's Global Head of AI in the Group Digital team. "We want our human advisers to become prime users of our robo adviser, so they can tune in even better to the actual needs of their customers."

Prudential could easily replace its human staff with robo advisers -- and might save money if they did. But Prudential believes that would be a business mistake. As Natusch demonstrates, Prudential knows how to use AI to achieve its business aims, but is very selective about why they use it.

Knowing how to ask why and get the answer to that question right is already what separates winners from losers in Silicon Valley, the world's most AI-friendly, technologically advanced business cluster. The companies that know the why of AI as it pertains to customer value, user experience and design thinking have nailed a crucial success factor. The rest die off or get swallowed up.

So consider the companies that are just starting on their AI journey. Most of them are much smaller than Prudential, say, or the Valley behemoths, and they have a much narrower margin of error. How are they going to be right about the why of AI in a business environment and market in constant flux?

Of their few certainties, one is that they have to act quickly. Agility allows companies to achieve goals in a dynamic environment by adjusting to changes rapidly and efficiently.

But agility can be more of a curse than a blessing if it pushes companies into an endless, chaotic struggle to reflect the ever-changing external conditions. And that's what happens when people and teams lack a clear sense of purpose and direction.

The key is making the why-centric thinking omnipresent in the business. Make it part of every decision the organization makes. If you can't describe in a few words why something you do is critical for the vision, you probably should be spending your resources elsewhere. If there's no clear answer to the question why, there's no need for a project, department or a budget line.

A Path Toward Purpose

It is critical that every project, every task your organization pursues is directed toward your company's purpose. Otherwise, you'll spin your wheels and waste time. And time is increasingly valuable -- AI-powered business models dramatically decrease the barriers to market entry. Your most dangerous competitor may be sitting in a fancy skyscraper or a remote village using an AI-powered mobile device. In short, spinning your wheels is incredibly costly in an environment where your competitors are multiplying and developing exponentially.

Unfortunately, according to Gallup studies, only a minority of employees have a good grasp of the why behind their organizations' decisions and activities. According to Gallup research, only 39% of employees in large organizations clearly see the connection between the job they do and their organization's purpose.

39% of employees say that the mission or purpose of their organization makes them feel their job is important.

Presumably, the organizations these employees work for have a well-formulated and inspiring mission statement. But their workers don't know about it. The challenge clearly cannot be solved by simply putting a poster on a wall. Most organizations will have to transform their culture and leadership to allow workers a glimpse of the why decision-making process.

To understand and act with the why in mind requires empowering employees to dream big and be accountable. They need to be able to question if a course of action is in line with the purpose. Workers need decision-making autonomy so they can correct the course of action to align with purpose. They should be encouraged to have a non-hierarchical mindset -- "Because the boss said so," cannot be an acceptable answer to a meaningful why question.

AI offers endless opportunities. But only some of them help a business achieve its objectives. Prudential started with the purpose of personalized customer service. It recognized that robo advisers wouldn't create the customer experience Prudential aims for -- robo advisers help Prudential's people be at their best for the customers, which is the objective.

Companies can't be selective about AI's options unless they align goals and tasks with purpose. And they can't implement AI constructively without a unanimously shared vision.

In other words, employees need to personally connect their daily work to a larger vision or AI will keep the wheels spinning on a company that isn't going anywhere.

Consider the following questions to determine your organization's readiness for the AI era.

  1. If someone asks two random employees in your organization about your purpose as a business, will their answers be consistent?

  2. Do set goals and purpose define the teams and structures in your organization, or do existing teams and structures set the goals?

  3. Using only your performance management records, how confidently can you identify employees and teams who are most critical to your organization's success?

The next article in this series will show leaders how to prevent AI from spinning the wheels at your company.

Take a closer look at Gallup's research on how your company can create a performance management system that helps your employees prepare for the disruption of AI:

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

Gallup