AI Is Everywhere, Except on Boards

For the most part, boards are still trying to wrap their heads around what AI really is and how to deploy it to benefit the organization

For the most part, boards are still trying to wrap their heads around what AI really is and how to deploy it to benefit the organization 

Artificial intelligence, as the rapper Common says in Microsoft’s ubiquitous ads, is here now. The fact that there are major commercials from Microsoft, IBM, and others about it is just one indication. Another is the avalanche of daily coverage about the possibilities and challenges AI presents to business—from increasing productivity and enhancing experiences to taking jobs and unconscious bias. For corporate boards, the applications of AI are so vast and are developing so fast that it is resulting in a sort of paralysis.

“Directors for the most part are still trying to wrap their heads around what AI really is and how to deploy it to benefit the organization,” says Sally Beatty, a principal member of Korn Ferry’s Global Technology and Board and CEO practices.

Unlike cybersecurity, for instance, where the business implications of a data breach or other security vulnerability can be plainly seen, understanding AI’s power to drive business growth is more complicated. Boards are struggling with devising a strategy for implementing AI into the organization in a way that maps to business objectives. As a result, while security concerns quickly led to the appointment of directors with subject matter expertise and the rise of the chief security officer position within the C-suite, that isn’t happening with AI.

To be sure, there is an urgent need for directors with AI expertise on corporate boards. “Boards are talking a lot about the need for AI expertise, but because it is so complicated, they are having trouble figuring out the skill sets and competencies their businesses need,” says Scott Coleman, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Technology, CEO, and Board practice.

One reason for the inaction is because the candidate profile is different than that of the typical board director. Coleman says boards are looking for the prototypical director, as in a C-suite leader with board experience who can come in and implement an AI strategy to create value. The problem is, the industry is so nascent that those kinds of candidates are extremely rare; Coleman likens them to “purple squirrels.”

“What boards are really asking for are directors with the leadership presence, communication skills, and high-level technology knowledge to help them strategize the business impact these emerging technologies will have on the company, its future business outcome, its customers, and its partners,” says Coleman. “They need to add value by helping the board think through the implementation requirements in order to be accretive to the organization.”

That doesn’t necessarily have to be a CEO. Nor does it have to be someone who will wax on to the board about tech. Beatty says more important than tech knowledge is a director who possesses the agility, emotional intelligence, and soft skills to align and engage management around an AI strategy.

“Most organizations need help figuring out how to incorporate AI into their business while maintaining some level of cultural continuity,” says Beatty. What that looks like could take many forms, from a skunkworks operation to an innovation team to a wholesale digital transformation. “Understanding the impact AI will have on business, customers, and employees isn’t just a tech issue.”

It’s an alignment one—which poses a wrinkle for boards on the recruiting side. The major concern among potential directors with AI subject matter expertise is being a “voice of one.”

“Candidates want to know that the board is of like mind and believe that AI will happen, and are earnest about getting in front of it,” Coleman says.

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