A woman presenting in a boardroom

A technical background isn’t a prerequisite for AI leadership success

By Richard Potter on March 8, 2024

We’re at a point in time where artificial intelligence (AI) has been jettisoned into every boardroom. It’s another thing to add to the never ending to-do list.

CEOs are entrusting AI to their chief technology, information, data or digital officers. At first glance it seems sensible. AI is an emerging technology — it’s complex, it requires integration with existing systems and processes and it feeds on a company’s data. But I’d argue there’s a vital role missing from the C-suite, the chief AI officer.

This person shouldn’t be a technical leader in disguise, it requires a completely different persona. To understand why, let’s take a look at the current top candidates: CTOs, CIOs and CDOs.

The role of chief technology officer (CTO) is said to have arisen from the days in the 1950s and 1960s, when large corporations established research and development (R&D) laboratories and needed someone to lead teams of research scientists. A well-established C-suite member, the CTO typically has deep technical expertise, particularly in architecture and software, and is responsible for the company’s technology strategy.

Later, came the chief information officer (CIO), a role that naturally evolved from the birth of the internet in the 1980s with the growing need for management of information technology, thus attracting computer science or IT management experts. The premise of the role hasn’t changed much, but as technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, the scope has widened to include a host of new technologies, including cloud-based computing, wireless communications and mobile devices, and sometimes AI.

More recently CDOs entered the scene. CDO could either refer to chief data officer or chief digital officer. According to Gartner, the former is responsible for data collection, control and governance, championing compliance and data-driven decision making in the business. A 2021 survey by PwC found that 66% of chief data officers came from a technical background, and according to Deloitte, only 7% report directly to the CEO.

Chief digital officers, on the other hand, are responsible for designing and implementing an organization’s digital transformation strategy. Forty one percent of organizations have CDOs with a solid technology background but are more likely to have a seat in the boardroom (54%).

AI is an emerging technology... but I’d argue there’s a vital role missing from the C-suite, the chief AI officer.

Richard Potter

CEO and co-founder, Peak

Exposure and experience

There’s a host of highly-qualified, senior leaders, ready and waiting to take on the AI challenge, so why am I campaigning for another person to enter the fold? It comes down to two primary factors: exposure and experience. The former refers to a leader’s position in the business, specifically who they report to and whether they are a member of the C-suite; the latter to their background, training and knowledge.

It’s widely acknowledged that AI will revolutionize business as we know it. PwC reports that 22% of CEOs are worried that their business might not be viable in 10 years’ time, and 77% of them are investing in deploying advanced technologies like AI to help secure their future. Having AI represented below C-suite level diminishes its importance, something we see most commonly with chief digital officers, who typically report to a CIO or CTO. Simply put, without direct CEO sponsorship, AI can become a second-tier project, an afterthought.

Usually, CTOs, CIOs and CDOs have a technical background and rightly so. Technical experience is needed to leverage AI but oftentimes, technical folks treat AI purely as a technical problem to be solved, rather than a core aspect of a business’ commercial strategy. If AI is to deliver the transformational outcomes businesses are looking for, it needs someone to think beyond the technical capabilities.

Introducing the Chief AI officer

The chief AI officer (CAIO) is a fairly new and infrequent role. According to a LinkedIn search I conducted of titles at the time of writing this article, there were only around 2,100 CAIOs on the platform. In comparison, searches for CTO pulled over 800,000 results, CIO over 350,000, chief digital officer over 200,000 and chief data officer over 150,000.

I won’t lie, this person is going to be difficult to hire. They need a very good understanding of the technology and its potential use cases, but they shouldn’t have an IT or data science background. It’s more important that they have solid commercial acumen and are keen to drive value and efficiency from AI across a business.

Reporting to a CIO, CTO or CDO will not suffice the entrepreneurial nature of the chief AI officer, who moves fast and fails fast. They need not be burdened by technical constraints, and there should be no buffer between them and the CEO so that conversations about return on investment and opportunities to exploit AI are outcome focused, rather than bound by budget and skepticism.

This person needs to be able to lead a cross-functional strategy, but I’d argue they don’t need a large team. Instead, they need to lead with influence and embed practitioners, technical or commercial, into departments across the business. Hiding away in a research and development-style cave away from the end users is a sure-fire way to develop AI that fails to address your outcome.

The era of the CAIO is here

For the full potential of AI to be reached, it needs more than a proficient, technical champion. Instead, it needs a change agent who’s not accepting of the status quo and able to enthuse technical skeptics. Consider the era of the chief AI officer upon us.

This article was originally written and published for Forbes Business Council on 8 February 2024.

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