By Rob Enderle
Employee-facing generative AI Tools are falling into two camps. There is the enhancement path as showcased by Microsoft Copilot effort where the AI tool significantly automates employee tasks, and the emerging field of companies like Synthesia that create tools that could be used to create a digital twin of the employee.
Right now, the company would buy and own the related tool and provide it to the employee, but should it? Clearly, prior enhancement tools like translators and spell checkers are generally provided by the company, but AI changes a lot of things. Should we rethink who owns a tool that could become part of the employee or replace them?
Replacement tools like those created by Synthesia are being used to fill in for employees at first, and cover for them when they are sick, absent, or unable to do a related task. The current iterations of these tools aren’t advanced enough to replace the employee, but they will evolve to that capability. It would seem obvious that employees are unlikely to train these tools well if they believe their employer is going to turn around and replace them with it.
This suggests that tools designed to replace an employee should likely be tied to them. If they leave the company, the tool either leaves with them or is destroyed so that it never becomes the cause of that departure. But what if the employee retires, dies or is fired for cause?
If the employee paid for the tool, then they own it, and what happens to the tool, regardless of how they leave the company, is up to them. There might be an exception if an employee is fired for cause or commits a crime. In that case, the tool might become evidence and be retained by the company. But what is to prevent the company from orchestrating an outcome where they get the tool for free? Care will need to be taken to assure this doesn’t happen so that the state or a union won’t be able to step in with penalties and brand-destroying publicity that could make the cost exceed the benefit.
But what about enhancement tools?
What makes generative AI enhancement tools, such as Microsoft’s Copilot, different from translators and spell checkers is that they learn and adapt to the user. Much as a master mechanic is expected to own their own tools, employees that have fully trained their generative AI enhancement tools should own them. This is because, over time, this class of tools will adapt themselves to the employee uniquely, improving that employee’s productivity. While some enhancements will be applied to all employees, most will likely be tied to the individual that trains them.
Should they change jobs, these enhancements should move with them, having become part of their work process. If they don’t, they could be used as a retention tool because the employee will have to start over in a new job training the tools nearly from scratch. They don’t necessarily need to take the tool with them, just the data set that defines their unique use case but, right now, there is no disclosed way to accomplish this without taking the entire tool. I expect this will change as employees realize how this information could become a chain tying them more tightly to their company over time and reducing their ability to move between companies.
Whether the tool is an enhancement or a replacement, the employee should own it to assure that the tool isn’t used to replace or constrain them without their overt permission. However, there is nothing preventing an organization from creating highly capable non-employee-identified digital employees and moving to a human-free environment. While employee ownership would slow that trend substantially, it wouldn’t prevent it indefinitely.
While I doubt this will become a major problem over the next decade, AI is moving impressively quickly now. and it is certainly possible, if not probable, that this could happen far more quickly. It is interesting to note that models created around a decade ago, like one presented at the then Dell Technologies World, suggest that the most expensive employees are most at risk. Some recent speculation puts CEOs on the short list of employees that are overly costly and could be one of the first classes of employees to become digitized as a class. This has already started and the results suggest this trend will accelerate.
This top-level risk may help drive company policies that will protect the rest of us. We can only hope.
About the author: As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob Enderle provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.
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