These 3 people leaders are guiding gen AI adoption for their orgs

A peek into the minds of human resource business leaders reveals that gen AI adoption doesn’t depend on agility with any specific tool—but it does require a capable leadership approach and a plan to get started.

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That’s what three leaders in distinct businesses—a global law firm, a leadership organization and a digital education provider—shared recently with Human Resource Executive. Each organization is using a different platform in its AI adoption rollout. They named ChatGPT, Microsoft Bing Copilot and Perplexity, respectively, as their preferred generative AI engines. They also identified Microsoft Teams and Slack as the best tools for encouraging collaboration and sharing learning.

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According to these leaders, it’s not the tool but how one’s org uses it (and encourages the use of it) that sets the stage for an AI-ready culture.

Holistic AI at McDermott Will & Emery

Kathleen Pearson, global chief talent officer, emphasizes a holistic approach to understanding the comprehensive impact of AI on the workforce at McDermott Will & Emery, a global law firm with more than 1,400 attorneys plus related staff.

The firm has an established AI policy and strict usage guidelines, reflecting its nature as a legally minded entity. The company uses an enterprise account with Microsoft Copilot in Bing, and all employees must restrict their experimentation to this proprietary tool. If an employee visits another platform—ChatGPT, for example—a warning will ask whether they want to move forward, suggesting the internal platform instead.

Kathleen Pearson of McDermott Will & Emery on gen AI adoption
Kathleen Pearson

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McDermott Will & Emery recently hosted a Prompt-a-thon, with a group of employees brainstorming two to three ideas on how to solve problems with AI. The event featured dedicated IT professionals, each assigned to a small segment of cross-functional participants, which is a unique way to designate resources and encourage inter-departmental collaboration. Pearson said this prearranged connection helped employees feel comfortable consulting with IT team members.

During the Prompt-a-thon, employees grouped to include people with varying degrees of AI experience discovered ways to experiment with generative artificial intelligence. Pearson says that because employees are already using AI platforms “on the margins,” creating momentum in a managed setting sets a collaborative tone for the at-work adoption of these tools.

This is the time to play around, she says, before businesses build an expectation of outcomes. “There is a finite time to experiment. After that, it will be difficult to catch up.” She warns against being reactive. To keep ahead, McDermott Will & Emery is planning a firmwide rollout of AI tools, which will kick off with a pilot group.

Pearson recently launched Ask Jane, a dedicated ChatGPT platform designed to empower Gen Z job seekers with tailored career and interview advice. She says that with each interaction, Jane evolves, becoming more adept at addressing the user’s needs. “Start with a problem and create an out-of-the-box solution,” Pearson advises her fellow HR leaders. “If I can do it, anyone can.”

The advantage of using artificial intelligence is that it can slice and dice a large amount of data, and Pearson says she can see the “power of making change” armed with this information. She calls data a “conversation driver” that can benefit the human resource department and the business as a whole.

‘AI-first and AI-ready’ at Quantum Networks Group

Charlene Li, an author and the founder of Quantum Networks Group, literally wrote the book on AI adoption in the workplace. Her most recent publication, Winning with Generative AI: The 90-Day Blueprint for Success, is a guide for business leaders to bring gen AI to their workplaces, tailored to their organization’s purpose and values.

Li advises preparing HR to be “AI-first and AI-ready,” with a budget for approved tech. “AI won’t replace you, but someone using AI will,” she warns.

Charlene Li
Charlene Li

Li recently spoke to an audience of HR leaders at i4cp’s Next Practices Now conference. Like Pearson, she emphasizes the need for businesses to establish a safe and secure ground for experimentation. Li suggests setting up a large language model behind a firewall, such as ChatGPT for teams, and sharing learnings in a Slack channel.

Besides security, Li offers another compelling reason to keep the scope of AI experimentation internal, rather than sharing inquiries with a public model: Prompts should be treated as the organization’s intellectual property.

She recommends specific training for the executive team and those in key leadership positions. She also suggests that individuals who protest should be managed uniquely, to keep positive momentum and reduce uncertainty for those more willing to adopt and try new AI-based tools.

Li also encourages HR leaders to propose exercises to help their teams and colleagues “get their hands dirty.” People can’t imagine what new tech and its outcomes are like if they don’t use it, she insists.

Everyone tries AI at Springboard

The mantra “always learning” is written into the values at Springboard, a digital learning platform that preps students for careers in the tech industry. Nichole Pitzen, who joined the company in 2020 as vice president of people and places, says that the organization’s goal is to have 100% of its workforce try out generative artificial intelligence.

Nichole Pitzen,. Springboard, on gen AI adoption
Nichole Pitzen

To encourage employees to consider the benefits of AI, she encourages them to think about how new tools can be applied to their work. For example, she asked the sales team to pose the following question to Perplexity: Is a Springboard boot camp worth it?

Bootcamps are Springboard’s most comprehensive learning programs, so the sales team needs to understand the questions and concerns that potential customers might ask. Perplexity can frame answers to customers’ potential questions into a response that can be further developed with additional questioning.

Pitzen says that when employees understand how using AI-based tools can pay off in their daily lives, they will become “champions” who encourage coworkers to give the platforms a whirl. She points out that this is most effective when organizations identify areas with the highest potential to benefit from artificial intelligence.

In Springboard’s case, this was its engineering department. Based on lessons learned from the engineering population, Pitzen and the leadership team have since created a playbook based on the experience of the company’s engineers, with plans to adapt and roll it out within the company.

Over the past decade, there’s been a noticeable gap in tech skills within both the U.S. and global workforce, as studied by Deloitte and other research firms. Pitzen emphasizes that this gap is substantial, but at the same time, there’s a growing need for “enduring” skills—traits that are durable, transferable, and adaptable. These, according to the people leader, include networking, discipline, communication and strategic thinking.

Pitzen suggests that these traits could be just as important—if not more so—than skills directly tied to using new technologies, which tend to change rapidly. According to Springboard’s survey of 1,000 corporate professionals, 78% of the leaders asked say today’s tech skills will become obsolete in less than five years.

Pitzen emphasizes that society is only scratching the surface of gen AI’s potential. Consequently, her team advocates for exploring the functionalities readily available within workplace tools. She suggests leveraging voice-to-text functions, employing generative AI for initial drafts of communications and utilizing chatbots as brainstorming partners. These are simple methods for integrating artificial intelligence into existing tasks on everyone’s to-do lists. “We are still in the early stages of what AI can do,” says Pitzen.

Jill Barth
Jill Barth is HR Tech Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist with bylines in Forbes, USA Today and other international publications. With a background in communications, media, B2B ecommerce and the workplace, she also served as a consultant with Gallagher Benefit Services for nearly a decade. Reach out at [email protected].