How to avoid the headaches of AI skills development

Most executives don't understand their team's AI skills. But some pioneering companies are taking action.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer
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Adopting artificial intelligence (AI) to assist with tasks in business and technical functions looks good on quarterly reports for shareholders. But throwing technology into an organization doesn't deliver overnight miracles.

The big challenge with AI is that many business and IT leaders aren't sure whether their organizations are ready to handle it productively, according to a recent survey of 1,200 IT executives and professionals by Pluralsight.

Also: 5 ways to prepare for the impact of generative AI on the IT profession

While 81% of IT professionals are confident they can integrate AI into their roles, only 12% have significant experience working with the technology. To complicate matters further, 90% of executives don't completely understand their team's AI skills and proficiency.

"Even as organizations accelerate AI adoption, the majority don't understand what, if any, AI skills their employees possess or have an upskilling strategy to develop them," the study's authors point out. "The AI skills gap doesn't only apply to advanced technical skills, either. To make the most of AI, organizations need an accurate way to benchmark AI skills across their organization and use their insights to create a plan for skill development. This should include basic AI literacy as well as hands-on experiences where employees can apply what they learn, experiment, and make mistakes in a safe environment."

The AI skills gap impedes long-term success, the survey shows. Almost all executives and IT professionals (94%) believe AI initiatives will fail without staff who can use AI tools effectively.

Executives and IT professionals agree that investing in talent, training, and culture is the top step organizations should take to prepare for emerging AI tools. Yet only 40% of organizations offer formal structured AI training.

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Some leading organizations recognize the potential of AI and are taking proactive measures to address the challenge of preparing their workforces for AI -- even employing AI itself to boost AI skills. 

For example, Johnson & Johnson has launched a concerted effort to prepare employees for an AI-driven economy.

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"We hire learners," Johnson & Johnson CIO Jim Swanson said. "Everyone in our organization has an objective that focuses on how they'll grow and develop their skills in 2024. Our global, AI-powered learning platform, J&J Learn, offers courses like a six-week digital immersion program to build capabilities in product management, design thinking, and artificial intelligence."

Core technology skills essential in today's AI era include software development, cloud engineering, data management, and network operations, Swanson said: "Just consider how foundational elements like data and elastic computing fuel the AI models that are currently in the spotlight."

Also: Six skills you need to become an AI prompt engineer

However, AI isn't just important for technology professionals. Swanson said everyone across the organization should play a role in digital growth. "Leaders should take an active part in equipping their employees with critical future-ready skills, like how to responsibly apply generative AI to improve productivity, how to leverage intelligent automation to speed operations, or how to simulate steps in a supply chain with digital twins or augmented reality," he added.

J&J also incentivizes learning "through a month-long challenge where associates hone their technical and leadership skills, with points earned translating into donations for students in need globally," Swanson said. "We believe that training is critical, but it is through experience that this upskilling takes its full dimension. We pair these digital upskilling courses with growth gigs and mentorships, providing the opportunity to reinforce learning through experience and exposure."  

Also: Beyond programming: AI spawns a new generation of job roles

While AI is all about leading-edge technology, Swanson said using tools is only part of the story. "Even as we reimagine how we work through technology, we will always need people in the center to guide our innovation," he said. "The business of technology is distinctly human, and we need to foster soft skills like customer-centricity, people leadership, and communications." 

The Pluralsight survey's authors made the following recommendations to executives who want to build a well-trained technical and business workforce:

  • Consider upskilling versus outsourcing for AI capabilities - "Eighty percent of executives and 72% of IT practitioners agree their organization often invests in new technology without considering the training employees need to use it," the Pluralsight survey suggests. "Finding AI experts in the market is a gamble. Organizations that develop AI talent from their existing workforce will build the exact AI skills they need while providing valuable professional development opportunities to their teams."
  • Develop an AI training strategy before implementing AI applications - "Organizations that want to take advantage of emerging technologies don't always have time to train their employees first. But if they can implement an upskilling strategy before deploying AI technology, their teams can start driving value from day one."
  • Assess current AI capabilities - "Organizations need visibility into their teams' AI capabilities. Once they understand their strengths and weaknesses, they can develop an upskilling program that fills in the gaps and gives them the skills they need to use AI tools effectively."
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