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Is a chief AI officer needed to drive an artificial intelligence strategy?

Is it time for organizations to hire a chief AI officer to drive their artificial intelligence strategy? Research analysts and technology professionals share their views.

As AI continues to be adopted by enterprises, the quest to turn artificial intelligence into business value is quickly capturing the C-suite's attention. Corporate giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook are snapping up AI startups to power their artificial intelligence strategy and initiatives, and are also hiring AI gurus to lead their artificial intelligence research.

SearchCIO asked research analysts and technology professionals whether it's time for organizations to expand their C-suite to make room for a "chief AI officer" role to spur development of an effective artificial intelligence strategy. Experts offered advice on how organizations can determine whether they need to hire a chief AI officer, and how the role could be effective in helping organizations to adopt and apply AI across diverse functions. They warn that although there are specific traits that organizations should be looking for in a chief AI officer, finding the right talent for the role could be a challenge.

Chirag Dekate

Research director, Gartner

Chirag Dekate

If you look at how organizations are working to implement AI, you will see a very mixed approach. In some cases it might be appropriate to have a chief AI officer, but in other cases organizations might want to have a more decentralized approach.

One rule of thumb to identify whether an organization needs a centralized function is to decide whether its core business model is likely going to require a fundamental change. If the answer is 'yes,' then a chief AI officer is probably needed. The key advantage of having a core centralized function is having a leader that ensures adoption of AI across diverse functions within the organization. On the other hand, if the organization is using advanced analytics or AI to enhance its existing product offerings and capabilities, having something more organic is going to deliver far richer results.

An ideal candidate for this role needs to have a wide range of knowledge. First, they need to understand the capabilities of AI, the AI infrastructure, the different mechanisms and how to apply some of those mechanisms in the organizational context. Second, they need to understand what the organization is trying to achieve. A retail giant may apply AI in a very different way than Hyperscale players like Google or Facebook. A successful chief AI officer should also have the ability to work across cross-functional teams and, more importantly, should know how to architect successful initiatives and communicate it up to the CEO level.

Karen Lawson

IEEE senior member

Karen Lawson

Depending on the size and business, many organizations will need to think about the role of a chief AI officer. While a full-time position may be overkill, the role of a senior leader who is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the opportunities for the organization in the broad domain of artificial intelligence is now critical.

This role provides strategic, and in many cases tactical, guidance and support for exploring and transforming the business using realistic AI approaches. This role would also serve as the pragmatic evangelist for the process, people and tools that can help achieve real business results with AI or human intelligence augmentation. It is important for this role to guide the appropriate and reasonable expectations of AI and to push for the proper applications so the business value is demonstrated.

The ability to simplify complex topics and to influence others is also essential to the role since there can be a confusing array of approaches, vendor products and internal tensions around strategic directions. This role needs to provide a clear, actionable path forward for the chosen artificial intelligence strategy that allows flexibility but focuses on realistic delivery along the way. 

Alan Lepofsky

Vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research

Alan Lepofsky

AI is an emerging technology that organizations need to be educated on and it is absolutely paramount that organizations are aware of its benefits and challenges. If you are not thinking AI right now, you are already a year behind. AI is not something that requires a dedicated position; what it requires is an understanding from each of the existing roles on what AI is going to mean for their organization.

The head of HR needs to understand how they are going to better match candidates to jobs by incorporating AI into their hiring practices. The head of marketing needs to understand how they are going to run more targeted campaigns, create more personalized experiences. The head of customer support needs to understand how they are going to resolve issues quicker.

There are two ways in which AI is going to make its way into companies and it's currently falling into the role of the CIO to understand what platform organizations want to choose. One, they need to understand how their existing vendors are enhancing their tools and applications by using AI. Two, organizations need to start looking at AI features they can add to the custom apps that are being built in house.

Edwin Van Bommel

Chief cognitive officer at IPsoft

Edwin Van Bommel

There is no question that artificial intelligence plays a pivotal role for any company's digital strategy and a chief AI officer will be an essential leader. As AI is embedded into all aspects of operations, critical business decisions that are currently dispersed across executives throughout the organization will be consolidated into a connected intelligence system that spans all processes.

While a chief AI officer needs to have a deep appreciation for the true capabilities of AI and an understanding of how best to manipulate this technology, the leaders will be those who have a vision for how to apply AI to create business value. They need to own the insight for how AI can impact core business levers. Those who will be most successful are those who are prepared to be radical in re-thinking business opportunities around the new capabilities of AI, rather than trying to fit AI into old world models.

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