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Are You Asking the Right Questions in the New AI Era?

Are You Asking the Right Questions in the New AI Era?

by Maria Semykoz
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • AI can find answers, but humans have to ask the right questions
  • Organizations need to create cultures that endorse and reward curiosity
  • Only companies that ask the right questions can use AI effectively

This article is the third in a series about how business leaders can become better prepared for managing the AI disruption.

The problem with human decision-making is that it's just plain undisciplined.

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says, "You should replace humans by algorithms whenever possible, and this is really happening. Even when the algorithms don't do very well, humans do so poorly and are so noisy that just by removing the noise you can do better than people ... by enforcing regularity and processes and discipline on judgment and on choice, you improve and you reduce the noise, and you improve performance because noise is so poisonous."

Kahneman's work has long shown the constraints of human decision-making, and he's one of the most convincing proponents of reliance on algorithms. However, even if AI beats us in the business of finding answers, humans are still better positioned to ask good questions.

It's an advantage we're likely to maintain in the long run because we're able to learn and draw conclusions from a small number of data points. It takes a modern machine learning algorithm requires many data points -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of them -- to learn to recognize simple objects. But a 3-year-old child can recognize a circle shape after a few repeated exercises. The capacity for imagination, creativity, linking remote concepts and making value-based and ethical judgments is uniquely human, uniquely valuable and uniquely constructive.

Now, how many organizational cultures encourage people to practice these valuable abilities? Is the person who constantly asks challenging questions more likely to climb the career ladder quickly or to earn the reputation of being a nuisance who stands in the way of getting work done? How often is the business intelligence department tasked with finding data to support a decision that's already been made, rather than charged with answering an open question? Who's more likely to get promoted, the person who proposes an idea that proves fruitless by an empirical test, or the person who just follows her boss' preference?

How often is genuine curiosity respected? How often is it discouraged?

These questions about questions are important because they pertain to culture -- the kind of culture that can make the most use of AI. As noted in the previous article in this series, winning isn't a matter of knowing how to do something, not anymore. Winning is the result of knowing why to do something. Everyone must be encouraged to ask why -- and keep asking all the time. That's how companies align AI with performance and performance with success.

The Power of Asking the Right Questions

It is worth noting that not all questions are created equal. In many large organizations, questions, if they are asked at all, are asked in a Socratic way. Leaders pose questions to guide employees' thinking, not to elicit information -- because the leader already knows the answer.

The Socratic method is a useful way to teach, but it is not a helpful way to obtain information in the complex and rapidly changing AI-powered business world. Yet, asking question after question to draw the audience to the "right" answer is the way leaders often approach their business intelligence department, data analysts and those they meet with -- usually while armed with carefully selected and impressively plotted Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

In the AI-powered environment, we need less Socrates. We need to ask questions that don't have immediate answers. AI can answer those questions better and faster than we can, anyway -- because we are always going to work in conditions with "poisonous noise," as Kahneman calls it. That's a consequence of working with and selling products to humans.

43% of employees strongly agree they can express thoughts, feelings, disagreements with supervisor.

But, in most companies, people are at least a little afraid to ask questions. Most of us hesitate to express our thoughts, feelings and disagreements with our bosses. Implicitly or explicitly, some companies don't reward curiosity or even endorse it. Others actively discourage it. That's dangerous in today's world, where asking the right question is both a huge competitive advantage -- and one of the only things a human can do better than a machine.

To accept questions as an opportunity rather than a threat or a challenge, leaders need a certain kind of humbleness, which is the topic of the next article in this series.

Consider the following questions to probe your organization's readiness for the AI-powered business environment:-

  1. Could a typical front-line employee explain the top three KPIs used to measure your business' progress toward your goals?
  2. How easily can a front-line employee who is interested in testing an idea access business data that is otherwise not available to them?
  3. What share of time during your typical leadership meetings is spent on presentations and reports, and what percentage on discussions and brainstorming?

Read the first and second articles in this compelling seven-part series. The next article will discuss the steps business leaders can take to create a culture of confidence in the AI era.

Discover how your company can create a performance management system that helps your employees prepare for the AI era:

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.


Maria Semykoz is a Workplace Analytics Architect at Gallup.

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