Fools rush in: AI superstars are not created overnight

Paul_AlexanderYesterday I was asked by a mate whether I thought they needed a chief AI officer. The reason he was asking is that one of his company’s competitors had just signed one up to huge fanfare and he was nervous about the potential competitive advantage of such a move.

So, need he be worried?

If you look at some section of the media press, including the FT, Forbes, HBR, IT Pro, Raconteur, CIO – all of whom have run articles entitled “The staggering rise of the CAIO” or some such – then the answer is undoubtedly yes. Apparently, CAIOs are the new czars, master of everything and strategic powerhouses. Any business that fails to appoint one before the end of the year is doomed.

This proclamation has been justified by a staggering growth rate. Apparently, last year the role saw a 540% increase – impressive, right?

Wrong.

When you unpick the data you’ll see that in 2022 there were only 19 CAIOs which rose to 122 by the end of last year. An important lesson – always look at the reality, not the headline stats…

The Importance of AI conversations in the boardroom
So back to my mate. IMHO he was asking the right question but framed in the wrong way. If AI has made it into the boardroom of the competitor, then yes he should be worried.

AI is transforming industries by offering new efficiencies and capabilities. It is crucial for businesses to consider how AI can be strategically used to enhance their operations. These discussions should be a regular part of boardroom conversations. However, this responsibility does not necessitate a separate CAIO. The CTO, already responsible for the organisation’s technology strategy, is well-positioned to oversee AI initiatives. This approach ensures that AI is integrated into the broader technology and business strategy rather than being siloed​.

Keeping up with the market
One of the main reasons for not rushing into appointing a CAIO is the rapidly evolving nature of AI technology. The market is changing so quickly that it is difficult to keep up with the latest developments. Additionally, there is a shortage of individuals with the comprehensive knowledge and experience required to fulfil the CAIO role effectively. Many purported AI experts may not possess significantly more expertise than an informed CTO or another executive with a strong interest in AI.

A humorous yet telling anecdote from a very prestigious business school AI course highlights this issue. A young delegate, whose prior experience was in a marketing team, was promoted to CAIO at their organisation on the strength of his certificate of completion (note certificate of ‘completion’ not ‘achievement’), despite having no boardroom experience.

This exemplifies the hasty and often ill-informed decisions businesses are making in their rush to be AI-superstars. It underscores the need for caution and the importance of informed decision-making when it comes to AI leadership.

Beware of the charlatans
The hype around AI has led to a proliferation of self-proclaimed experts and charlatans who may not have the depth of knowledge they claim. Organisations must be wary of these individuals and ensure that their decisions regarding AI leadership are based on solid, informed foundations. Rather than jumping on the CAIO bandwagon, businesses should invest in AI education and training for their existing leadership teams to build a robust understanding of the technology’s potential and limitations.

So, while the role of CAIO might become more relevant in the future, most organisations do not need one at this juncture. What is key, though, is that AI initiatives are integrated into the overall business strategy. Businesses must focus on having informed AI conversations in the boardroom, recognising the rapidly changing landscape and avoiding hasty decisions driven by hype. By doing so, they can make strategic, well-informed choices that genuinely benefit their operations and long-term goals.

Paul Alexander is chief executive of Beyond: Putting Data to Work

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