12 Aug 2021
Should your Board appoint a Chief Artificial Intelligence and Data Officer?
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Taking full advantage of a technology set to transform our lives means examining how the board should be reshaped and potential new roles created, as our AI Report explains.
If artificial intelligence and data represents quite the revolution it promises to be, should that be reflected at board level?
Given the wide range of new expertise required and the extensive demands of the AI transformation, the Chief AI and Data Officer (CAIDO) might become a common presence at the highest level of business.
Whilst some might say the role resembles the Chief Digital Officer at the onset of the Digital Age, we would argue that the CAIDO role requires even deeper technical expertise and involves more permanent tasks.
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“I am convinced that it is necessary to represent data and cloud competence on the board level in form of a C-level function. In addition, the responsibility for scaling AI needs to be co-shared by the business units. Genuinely fostering collaborative, iterative, cross-functional teams is one of the top critical success factors for whether an AI project succeeds or fails.”
- Carola Wahl, Board Member, ex-CTMO Axa Switzerland.
Three key responsibilities of the CAIDO:
1. Challenge the status quo from an ‘AI First’ perspective
The CAIDO will have in-depth AI expertise and a more independent distinct perspective on the existing infrastructure and business model.
Thinking ‘AI First’, the CAIDO will analyse and challenge the current situation, without being held back by the potential domain bias of existing board members (CIO, CFO, etc.) when establishing overall priorities.
2. Drive AI initiatives throughout the company
Without responsibility for other functional tasks, the CAIDO can commit entirely to driving AI initiatives. We know that for a company to reap the full benefits from AI, an organisation requires fundamental changes in infrastructure, data, people, organisation, processes, and the partner/supplier ecosystem. In short, pretty much everything.
“A dedicated board member responsible only for pushing AI projects can tackle problematic issues more effectively and with greater strength.”
Moreover, states Emanuel Pfister, AI initiatives need orchestration and coordination on a company-wide level, typically supported by an AI Center of Excellence (COE).
Markus Trost explains, "As future technology advances, it will be vital for companies to find their individual relationship with artificial intelligence. Our experience shows, that a Center of Excellence organisation model provides the best opportunity for a successful implementation. Whatever the individual desired skill levels and available skills are in this model, the organisation and their talents finally need to be tailored to the future needs.”
The CAIDO is responsible for ensuring the overall alignment of AI activities and for successfully overseeing the existing initiatives throughout the complete lifecycle.
Without top-level oversight of the complete AI portfolio and programs, duplication of efforts and waste of resources is likely. Additionally, effective coordination can create synergies for the company, for example, by leveraging existing datasets for other related use cases.
The CAIDO should also assume more permanent roles beyond the oversight of the central AI talent pool. Given the critical role of data for AI, one obvious area needing oversight is data access and governance.
Depending on the personality, priorities, and capabilities of the CIO, other areas, such as AI partner and ecosystem management, could be added. The interaction between CAIDO and CIO needs to be highly collaborative and carefully balanced.
3. Serve as a sparring partner for other board members
Last but not least, the CAIDO is the AI expert on the board so serves as the sparring partner for other functions, raises important competitive issues in strategic discussions, and points out new opportunities and risks.
New role. Several challenges.
The scarcity of strong candidates is challenge number one. AI has only recently become a mainstream subject, even in Computer Science. Not surprisingly, there are hardly any AI experts who also have a strong transformational experience at large companies.
Young disruptive entrepreneurs with a strong AI background are rare. Adding them to an established board, possibly without granting them their own significant budget, has not worked particularly well in the past.
The effective deployment of AI requires a focus on achieving business goals, and a good CAIDO understands this. Innovation only succeeds when it’s underpinned by solid understanding of actual business problems and goals.
“Even for ‘digital native’ companies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a step-change and the role of a Chief AI and Data Officer in the company board is critical — not only to challenge the status quo from an ‘AI First’ perspective but also to clearly message the importance of AI to the rest of the organisation and global top talent that supports this step change.”
- Ralf Herbrich, SVP Builder Platform and AI at Zalando
How you proceed depends on whether you already have a CIO or CTO on your board and what mindsets and skillsets they cover.
Beyond that, if you can find an integrative, experienced, and knowledgeable person, accepted by the board as strengthening the team, then adding a CAIDO could be an enormous asset.
In practice, we expect companies to review the experiences and lessons learnt with CDOs (typically a more transitory role). This will allow them to decide, whether and how to add a CAIDO in a truly constructive way.