Strategy

Creating employee buy-in to AI a strategic imperative

For AI to revolutionize the finance function, CFOs must get employees on board.
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5 min read

From the murderous HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the menacing AUTO in Pixar’s masterpiece WALL-E, AI has been a bogeyman in popular culture for decades.

And while we don’t live in a fictional, AI-driven apocalypse like in Terminator (at least not yet), the anxiety that many workers have of the technology being a job-stealer is real.

Employment anxiety is just one of the many impediments organizations face with AI implementation, according to consultants and finance leaders. These experts, who either gave presentations or spoke directly with CFO Brew at Gartner’s CFO & Finance Executive Conference in May, said that buy-in from employees is as important as the technology itself for AI implementation to succeed.

“Ultimately, for any system implementation or new technology, it’s important that you bring people along,” Erik Zhou, chief accounting officer of Brex, told CFO Brew. “One of the biggest things is [when] you add in a system, it’s a shiny tool, you have to make sure that you do the change management right, and you have to make sure that these folks—that may have been using a different tool, or a different method, or a different process, for however long they’ve been in the function—that they have the capability to learn something new and do something potentially very differently.”

AI “is as much an organizational capability as a technical one,” Clement Christensen, senior director and analyst at Gartner, said at a recent conference.

The beef with AI. The talent challenges with AI adoption, according to Christensen, include lack of familiarity with the technology, fear of failure in using it, fatigue from constant change, and fear of replacement. According to Gartner research, the frequency of “change events” was five times greater last year than 10 years ago. And a 2023 Gartner survey found nearly half (44%) of employees were worried AI will replace them.

“Fear and exhaustion creates change resistance,” Nisha Bhandare, VP and analyst at Gartner, told conference attendees. “We have, or shortly will have, new AI coworkers, and fearful people are rarely welcoming of new workers.”

But, whether employees want it or not, AI is coming.

Next step. Dan Fletcher, CFO of Planful, said that accounting and finance functions have evolved to “include some type of systems responsibility” over the years. AI is the next stage in that shift, he said.

“The job description has changed to include tech, and now needs to change to include specifically the AI part of tech,” Fletcher said. “I think there’s no question it will start to include that.”

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Fletcher and Zhou likened AI to the introduction of the assembly line in auto manufacturing. It made certain tasks obsolete, but opened opportunities for people to fill other roles, such as machine maintenance and factory floor management.

“The folks that were…initially preparing the work, now they can be a reviewer of the work, and in theory it would promote more accuracy, more productivity, and getting more stuff done in the same amount of time,” Zhou said.

Costly mistake. Failure to get everyone on board can have costly consequences. Christensen said he’s consulted firms that automated certain “boring” tasks, like managing accounts, to free up space for their controllers to focus on more high-value work.

“But 12 months later, the CFOs found that the finance business partners were still creating reports or helping out on managing accounts, even when they knew the work was quite literally redundant,” he said. “It baffled a lot of the CFOs.”

The reason? Come performance review, the employees had to demonstrate how much they contributed that year. It was easier to show the number of accounts they managed as opposed to measuring their impact on organizational decision-making. The CFOs hadn’t given them enough guidance on what they should be doing instead, Christensen said.

New AI technologies “will cause this exact same problem, but on a massive scale,” Bhandare said.

What’s the solution? With the problem identified, the next step is to address it. Christensen recommended organizations implement changes that are instant, reward employees’ on an emotional level, have a visible effect, and require low effort to execute. Employees can dip their toes into the AI pool and adjust to its temperature through activities like team workshops, use-case competitions, and communities of practice. Companies should adopt third-party AI tools in the near-term until they can build up their home-grown talent and tech.

But when everything clicks, the benefits are clear. Brex’s platform has AI functionality in spend management, enabling the travel and expense team to oversee expenses of the company’s 1,000 employees with the time equivalent of one-and-a-half people, Zhou said. That means Brex’s three-person T&E team can focus on more analytical work like fluctuation analyses.

“There’s a lot of other valuable work that we’re doing than just processing, and frankly, the team enjoys that,” Zhou said.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.