Navigating the Future at SXSW: What's Really at Stake with AI in the Workplace

rebecca hindsRebecca Hinds
2 april 2024
3 min. läsning
Asana at South by South West

Every March, Austin, Texas, transforms into a vibrant hub where the digital and physical worlds collide at South by Southwest (SXSW). It’s a crucible of groundbreaking ideas, brought to life by the brilliant minds behind them. This year, I had the opportunity to experience it in person as I tried to soak up every electrifying moment that surged through the air. 

At SXSW, I had the honor of speaking at The Fast Company Grill, a gathering that drew extraordinary speakers and thousands of attendees from 22 different countries. The audience was treated to insights from notables like actor Matthew McConaughey, Dara Khosrowshahi (CEO of Uber), Cameron Adams (Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Canva), and Ethan Brown (Founder and CEO of Beyond Meat). 

I spoke as part of a panel titled "What's Really at Stake with AI in the Workplace," where I shared the stage with Mike Bechtel, Deloitte’s Chief Futurist, and Aneesh Raman, head of The Opportunity Project at LinkedIn. Together, we delved into the transformative impact of AI, and how to navigate the complex landscape. 

AI short-termists versus long-termists 

The debate over AI and automation in the workplace is evolving rapidly, moving from an initial fascination with the technology to a serious discussion about its real-world impact. Mike Bechtel shared a clear-eyed view of this landscape, identifying two main camps in how companies are tackling AI and automation.

First, there are the "short-termists." This group considers AI to be a quick fix to cut costs and streamline operations, often translating into job cuts. It’s a bit like reaching for a diet pill instead of committing to a healthier lifestyle—sure, it might work for a while, but at what cost? This approach prioritizes immediate efficiency gains. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the "long-termists." They see AI as more than a cost-cutting tool; it's a way to elevate an entire organization. By automating mundane tasks, they aim to free up employees to engage in more meaningful, strategic work. This isn't about shrinking the workforce but enriching it, making room for innovation and growth by leveraging everyone’s full potential. It’s a more sustainable approach, looking to build a future where technology and human talent are fully integrated.

This dichotomy is gripping every organization right now. Chasing after quick wins is tempting and may satisfy investors and customers for the moment, but history and data suggest that the real victors will be those organizations looking beyond the horizon—those committed to their workforce, seeing AI as a means to augment and elevate, not just to cut costs.

We saw this clearly in our recent State of the IT Leader report, where 25% of IT leaders say they regret rushing into AI investments. This highlights a critical lesson: AI shouldn't be seen merely as another tool in the toolbox. Instead, it needs to be integrated into a comprehensive strategy, and used as a lever that amplifies capabilities and unleashes human potential. 

Skills-first vs. title-first approach to work 

Like Mike, Aneesh Raman is a long-termist. He shared a compelling perspective on adopting a skills-first approach in the evolving workplace shaped by AI. He urged the audience to move beyond the traditional title-centric view of employment to understand jobs as a collection of tasks. This collection breaks down into tasks that AI can perform, tasks that AI can enhance, and those that distinctly require a human touch.

This shift calls for a significant reevaluation of job roles, placing a premium on skills, especially those human qualities that AI cannot mimic, such as emotional intelligence (EQ). The implication here is a move towards a more dynamic and fluid workplace where skills take precedence over static job titles.

LinkedIn's data supports this shift, indicating that the skills required for today’s jobs are expected to change by 65% by 2030. This data doesn't just highlight the urgency of adapting to a skills-first mindset but also signals a profound change in the nature of employment itself. We all agreed that these trends point to a future where adaptability and continuous learning become key professional assets.

The shift from individual to team and organizational productivity gains 

I’m also a long-termist when it comes to AI’s role in the workplace. During the panel, I shared insights from our research on AI at Asana's Work Innovation Lab. Up to now, the push to integrate AI into our workplaces has mostly been focused on amplifying personal productivity—by speeding up data analysis, slicing through administrative tasks, or automating content creation.

But, the real breakthrough with AI goes much further than these individual gains. I'm convinced that the next wave of AI innovation will profoundly enhance team dynamics and overall organizational productivity. Imagine a workplace where forming teams isn't about slotting people into predefined job titles but about understanding work as a series of tasks that can be dynamically assigned.

Our Work Innovation Score is an example of this broader, more impactful vision. The tool leverages AI to deeply understand and improve how teams and entire organizations collaborate. It shines a light on where collaboration is streamlined and effective, while also spotting the formation of silos and brewing inefficiencies. Importantly, when AI is introduced into your organization, the score provides a clear assessment of its impact on collaboration. It indicates whether AI enhances team dynamics and facilitates better integration, or if there are opportunities to leverage it more effectively to support and enrich human interaction.

An optimistic future

Our panel wrapped up with a tone of cautious optimism. By looking beyond the immediate and embracing a vision for the future, where skill development and AI-driven collaboration are at the forefront, companies stand on the brink of unlocking unparalleled innovation and productivity. 

The future of work isn’t one where humans are sidelined by technology. Instead, it's a partnership—where human ingenuity and artificial intelligence converge to forge a workplace that's not just more efficient, but more inventive and rewarding. 

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