Exploring AI and the Future of Leadership: An Interview with Milo Jones


(5 min read) 

HR Congress (HRC): I’d like to get started by asking a general question. How AI is going to augment leadership, and potentially how is this going to impact on HR?

Milo Jones (MJ): Okay, sure! On the one hand, there is probably not a space in the business press right now that is attracting more hype than AI. I don’t want to drive into that ditch and tell you that all knowledge workers are doomed to replacement, and technology will be brilliant, and so on.

From everything I know and see, technology for the foreseeable future will remain very narrow. In that sense, it will supplement human capability, not replace human capability for most knowledge workers. But that doesn’t mean our HR departments can ignore it.

There is an acronym people have started to use; HAIR, rather than HR. HAIR, stands for Human and Artificial Intelligence Resources. What I like about that definition is that it accepts, in some sense, human resources will be augmented by artificial intelligence, and human workers will be augmented by artificial intelligence.

What that means, is that the leadership context changes, because you’re really be leading combined teams. Companies will need to be thinking about things like skill profiles, of which there are two layers.

On the one hand, they need to be recruiting for people comfortable working with AI. On the other hand, they need to understand which jobs are going to get replaced – and which roles might be replaced. They need to understand how they as HR professionals will have respond to that sort of creeping supplementation, replacement, and change.

In short, every manager is becoming a change management person, because the future is just a different country, and it’s strange.

HRC: One of the things that came to mind when I watched your TEDx talk, was idea of the centaur. In Greek mythology, they were seen as something barbaric, as a half man, half beast abomination. Of course, the idea of the centaur in the context of this discussion would be represented a being that is half man, half machine.

So, how will HR and the business navigate creating meaning in a society of centaurs? Are we going to see a rise in anomie; a lack of meaning and ethical standards, a lack of an ability to find something to hold onto? Or are we going to see even more uncertain hybridization between human and machine?

MJ: Right. The first picture you paint of increasing anomie, really, we have a precedent for that. That was the factories of the industrial revolution. However, I don’t think AI is going to get us to a similar point very fast. An analogy I might prefer is power tools. You will be running, in effect, the equivalent of a construction site with power tools, rather than an assembly line.

However, the creation of meaning, I believe, will be an increasingly important part of leadership. The ability to tell big stories about “What is the purpose of our company?” will be important, but also, the ability to spot and present small stories. We have an expression in intelligence analysis called “interrogating anomalies,” where you spot something, and then you use stories to make that exception, or that anomaly, informative.

The kind of talent that comes with not only spotting something that’s changed but translating that into a meaningful story, I think, is an increasingly important part of leadership. When I look at the skillset needed for the 21st century in leadership, I actually think it leans more toward traditionally what are considered the more female – to generalize – types of leadership styles.

This is less about knocking heads together and getting things done. It’s more about calm consideration of how people might feel, and taking seriously how people feel, instead of just what they think. But in general, especially in management and leadership, it’s skewing toward that story-telling, meaning-finding, fairness-aware person, and this is something that’s not traditionally associated with alpha males.

HRC: Let’s imagine you’re a CHRO in a multi-national company, and you’re looking at your succession management plans. You’re thinking, “Right, I know that some type of technological singularity is coming. We’re not going to be able to just fight the rising tide. We must embrace it.”

How are you going to go about bringing in people to the organization? What are the things you’re really going to look for and how do you think the company should go about this?

MJ: A couple of things. To start with, you want to recruit at the most basic level. You need people with strong basic skills, who are capable of continuing to learn their whole lives. We’ve been hearing that for a while. That remains true.

Culture is going to eat technology for breakfast. Click To Tweet

What I think is changing, or at least getting more emphasis, are two ideas. Number one; you have got to be recruiting people who take corporate culture seriously. Culture is going to eat technology for breakfast. There is not going to be some moment when, “Okay, we can ignore culture, because the machines will be doing it for us.” Culture is, in fact, central to the intelligent use of AI and brilliant technologies. That’s point one. You’re recruiting for deep awareness of how central culture is to leadership and business success.

The second thing is; I think you really are looking for traditional change management skills. One of the most useful experiences I had in my career as a consultant was spending about two and a half years in the Organizational Strategy and Change Management unit of Accenture. I learned there, a lot of stuff I didn’t get in my MBA, even though I took Change Management in my MBA.

I think change management is the new management, that it’s the new skillset that every manager will need. That is the sort of thing, when you’re thinking about succession plans; you need to be looking at.

So, on the basic level, it’s about core skills, and the ability to self-educate. On the higher level; taking culture seriously, taking change management as a core management responsibility, and a core leadership responsibility, seriously.

HRC: I wanted to touch on something that you mentioned in your TEDx talk. You said that the “new normal remains human”. Can you clarify that just a little bit more? What do you mean by the “new normal?” Are we to expect hybridization, or an Amazon Go store on every corner? How is this going to impact the wider environment around work?

MJ: Having started the podcast with some skepticism about how broad or narrow AI might get, it is very important to realize that there are millions of workers, right now, being managed not by human beings, but by algorithms. That’s something new. The sorts of workers I’m talking about deliver food for Uber Eats or drive for Lyft, for example.

These people are managed by software, not by human beings. That I think, is probably is the new normal. If you look at call centers now, everyone is used to calling a call center and hearing “This call may be recorded for quality improvement.” Actually, what it should be saying now is “This call may be monitored by software, evaluating the effectiveness of the service.”

The call center person is being judged; her tone of voice, his mannerism, his ability to solve the problem quickly. All of that is being done by software. That’s new, and I think that this will only spread and deepen. That’s the new normal; there are management algorithms.

But there are no leadership algorithms. I think that’s where previously in HR, there was a willingness to separate management and leadership. I think in the future, the leadership component will be helping people find meaning in their work, and in their company’s task. The advancements should be with the increasing focus of HR professionals, or HAIR professionals – Human and Artificial Intelligence Resources professionals.

HRC: I think in the modern global context, AI and cognitive technologies have the potential to be both a force of good, and a force of bad for the society and the economy.

MJ: If we widen the aperture of this conversation to a degree about societal impact. One of the things HR professionals have been concerned with are issues like privacy, and the separation between work and private life.

The reality is that privacy is, if not dying, then changing, and will continue to change. That will undoubtedly throw up new HR challenges, as lines between work and home blur, and lines between public and private blur. What policies do leaders need to put in place, to keep a sensible balance? I haven’t thought through what those are, yet, but I don’t think the issues will only increase.

HRC: That’s totally understandable. It’s a very large question. I don’t think anyone really does have the answer at the moment.

To wrap things up, I want to pull back a little, back to the Digital HR Summit Amsterdam that we’re putting together in March. What can the audience expect from your keynote presentation, in terms of a couple of main takeaways?

MJ: Number one; I teach a lot of Geopolitics. What that tends to imbue is a feeling for history. I am not interested in necessarily the latest and greatest developments in AI, over the last 12 months. I want to use this session in part, for HR professionals to bring a sense of historical context to the challenges that they’re facing Monday morning. I think there’s nothing more practical, actually, than ancient history.

The second thing I want to leave them with is not a silver bullet, which I don’t happen to have, to solve all HR or HAIR problems. But I do want them to have some feeling for the challenges organizations will face. Of course, every organization will be different and face different challenges. But they should be able to contextualize the challenges of their organization with what’s happening in their sector, and in the economy, as a whole.

And then, the third thing I want to leave them with is, frankly, one or two practical tools to look into. In 45 minutes, I can’t give everybody the answer. But I can point them toward where I think the answer lies, or what they should at least spend some more time on.

HRC: So, how can people get in touch with you or connect with you, if they want to talk a bit more about these issues?

MJ: Number one; I encourage people to do it. If you search for my name on LinkedIn, I’m the IE Visiting Professor, the Instituto de Empresa Visiting Professor. Send me a connection request, and I’m happy to connect and talk more, either before or after the conference.

HRC: Thank you again for your time, Milo. I’m looking forward to hearing the presentation in Amsterdam.

MJ: Thank you, I appreciate it, and I’m looking forward to it as well!

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Milo_Jones

Milo Jones is a Visiting Professor at IE Business School in Madrid, where he lectures on Geopolitics and Non-Market Strategy. He is also the Managing Director of Inveniam Strategy. Milo’s expertise lies applying the models, frameworks and tools of the Intelligence Community and Geopolitics to financial and business issues. His current research involves the impact of digital technology on geopolitics and society.

More on leadership from Milo and an esteemed group of experts at the Digital HR Summit in Amsterdam, 27-28 March 2018.

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