How can artificial intelligence create value for business?

The Artificial Intelligence in Management (AIM) Institute at France’s Emlyon Business School is studying real-world issues facing organisations, in an interdisciplinary way. David Woods-Hale speaks to AIM’s Executive Director, Renaud Champion, to find out more

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a talking point among Business School leaders for years, as institutions grapple with the most effective ways of preparing students to operate in the world of robotics. Renaud Champion, Executive Director of the AI in Management (AIM) Institute at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France, tells us how his School is addressing the challenge.

What does your role as AIM’s Executive Director involve?

My mission is to design and implement the School’s AI strategy at every level, from research to pedagogical content and the development of digital tools. 

Given my background as an entrepreneur and an investor in AI and robotics, I have experienced how these technologies are already impacting companies dramatically, in terms of the way work is organised and done, and how they create value. The DNA of the Institute was therefore based around two main questions, which seemed both obvious and relevant from a Business School perspective: how can AI generate value; and how is AI impacting work and governance?

I developed the AIM Institute eight months ago, as a startup within the Business School, to galvanise interest in, and action around, this strategy. But to be successful, a good startup needs the right team, so involving recognised researchers in this ambitious initiative was a first key step. 

After only a few months and thanks to the work of the AIM Research Directors, Professor Ruthanne Huising and Professor Margherita Pagani, we already had 20 researchers from different backgrounds involved and were expanding quickly. We could also count on the involvement of Emlyon’s Scientific Committee, made up of leading academics from Stanford, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), University of Texas at Austin, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Florida State University and the University of Southern California, to help us. At this point, it was necessary for me to start working on initial outputs as well as ensuring AIM’s activities gained visibility. To this end, we created a series of seminars and research conferences for our various audiences, plus new pedagogical modules for our students.

What disruptive trends are you observing around AI and its impact on higher education and work?

Our aim at the Business School is to prepare tomorrow’s managers and leaders to work in a technology-driven world. At the same time, it is also the responsibility of each manager – not just of the chief operating officer or chief technology officer – to ask themselves: ‘How can AI help me do my job more efficiently or differently?’

But to do this, managers need to be trained in these technologies, in design thinking methodologies, agility and so on. Companies need to invest in AI but also in their own people to get the most out of these technologies. This is why Emlyon includes courses on data, robotics and machine learning, and on the impact of these technologies on companies, in all its programmes.

It is important for us, as a Business School, to ensure our programmes are increasingly hybrid. However, AI is also transforming pedagogy itself. We are building new AI-augmented tools to support our students in their lifelong learning journey. Digital can help us personalise that experience.

Can you provide some background to the launch of AIM?

Over the past 20 years of working and investing in AI and related technologies, I have been involved in several different projects impacting various markets and sectors, from finance and agriculture, to transport and healthcare. 

This experience convinced me that AI is not only an economic opportunity, but also a social opportunity, because it can add value by putting humankind back at the heart of things. Researchers, engineers and product managers must be trained to become ever-more ethically responsible when they design, deploy or use emerging AI technologies. These principles are at the core of the AIM Institute. Our ambition is to understand the world in its complexity; build knowledge from it by taking an interdisciplinary approach, and disseminate this to various audiences in adapted formats, with the use of an omnichannel pedagogy. 

Why are there so few empirical studies looking at how AI will impact the workplace?

I believe the reason why there are many predictions about how AI will change business and the way we work, but relatively few empirical studies, is mostly due to companies’ late appropriation of recent AI-driven technologies which are still seen as not being mature enough. 

Most companies are still in the middle of their digital transformation and it is difficult for many to look ahead to the AI revolution. But it is coming, and it’s already affecting sectors such as healthcare and transport. Our first goal within the Institute is to work with companies on real-world problems and to support grounded, empirical studies of the way AI can create value around a broad range of business issues, as well as how this technology is changing what it means to work and the way work is organised, done and rewarded.

Can you talk us through the AIM Institute’s priorities of research, innovation and dissemination?

We aim to understand the opportunities and implications of AI for managing organisations, industries and business ecosystems. With this in mind, we have launched several series of seminars and workshops with leading scholars from around the world to address questions exploring the impact of AI on work and value creation, and organise monthly outreach lectures, open to the public, about the technologies behind AI in order to demystify and educate broadly.

On the pedagogical side, we have created an online certificate in AI and business for managers, new courses within our fields of expertise to be integrated into all of Emlyon’s programmes (at bachelor’s, master’s, MBA, and executive education levels), and post regular presentations on the School’s YouTube channel.

How complex is this type of implementation for Business Schools operating in a constantly changing and disrupted tech environment?

As in any other industry, in education we need to adapt constantly and cope with the latest technological breakthroughs. This requires a high level of agility around understanding technologies and being able to anticipate their impact, and this includes identifying the business and organisational issues that could emerge. Our approach is strongly interdisciplinary, so we address different variables across marketing, strategy, sociology and ethnography, alongside technology and ethics.

By building innovative pedagogical solutions based on digital and AI, we are questioning Emlyon’s mission as a School. All these new functionalities challenge the role of the professor. What can algorithms optimise and what should stay in the hands of the teacher? The question of how technology can be used to complement human skills also needs to be tackled in our domain of higher education.

How does your initiative work in practice and why is this a good example of how Business Schools and employers can work collaboratively to address issues such as AI?

On the research side, we have several studies under review by top academic journals and are working on new projects studying human-machine interaction; the impact of smart devices on the supply chain and operations; new business models derived from AI-augmented digital platforms, and how to design and create better user experiences through interactions with new technology.

These projects are interdisciplinary and address real business issues faced by organisations. Working closely with employers in an empirical way is a methodology we favour in order to anchor our actions in the real world. It means we can guarantee that we are relevant and impactful when disseminating this knowledge through pedagogy. We are also working on the creation of our technology transfer department. For every research project, we consider whether the work has the potential to contribute to our understanding of how organisations and institutions can take meaningful and responsible advantage of AI. For example, where we identify projects that have concrete business applications, we could develop patentable models that could be coded and used to develop an application that a partner organisation might find useful. Alternatively, we might explore the possibility of launching and supporting a startup to build on this innovation.

What are the implications of AI for labour markets, organisational design and governance and how can the AIM Institute make an impact here?

Thanks to embedded AI, robots are becoming more intelligent and can work safely alongside human workers. Machines will complement people in the workplace rather than competing with them, and this combination will speed up processes, make things easier for humans and enable people to add human value. 

For instance, in automotive factories 10 to 15 years ago, there were huge industrial robots operating behind security fences. But now the robots are becoming more intelligent and are being taken out of cages. Humans are back on the production line and are now operators of robots. From a business perspective, AI can help workers by automating dull, difficult, dangerous, or repetitive tasks.

In addition, AI-augmented systems, when combined with human operators, are always more efficient than human experts alone, or even machines alone. There is a healthcare study which shows that AI analysing a patient’s tumour will not perform as well as a human doctor. But if you combine the human doctor with an AI algorithm, the analysis is a lot more effective. 

AI can also be helpful in providing other diagnostic information that doctors can use to make better decisions about patient care. It won’t just be the healthcare sector that has to manage this balancing act, all areas will be affected.

Companies have no choice but to adapt and identify how they can use these technologies for their benefit, from both an economic and people perspective. Some jobs will disappear while new ones will be created. 

But rather than focusing on the numbers on each side, I think we need to understand how the whole structure of employment is being transformed by AI: most jobs won’t disappear, they will evolve. This is exactly what the AIM Institute is looking at: understanding how AI will transform the way organisations operate, how they are governed and how they recruit.

Your goal is to create and implement practical solutions from the research – what format will these take?

Everything starts with research. Through our research projects, we generate knowledge. This knowledge will be published in respected academic journals, but it is also the raw material with which we can develop our teaching. 

To do this, we will need to translate the research projects and findings into pedagogy, and this requires some engineering. When we talk about innovation within the AIM Institute, it is used first and foremost (but not only) from a pedagogical perspective. 

The technology-transfer mechanism, which is most often used in technical universities to build on their research, is something we want to implement. It might not always be possible, but our goal is for the team to consider each opportunity in turn, and in connection with our corporate partners as and where appropriate. 

What are the next steps?

We are now entering an acceleration phase and looking to expand globally – first into central and east Asia and Africa, where 

Emlyon Business School already has a strong presence, and then into India. We are also recruiting post-doctorates and assistant professors to open up new fields of knowledge around AI’s impact. 

We are also finalising online certificates and designing new courses for students. Last but not least, we are working on a new series of seminars, conferences and workshops for the coming academic year. It is an exciting time for us, working on a very exciting subject.

Renaud Champion is the Executive Director of the AI in Management (AIM) Institute and Director of Emerging Intelligences at Emlyon Business School, France. He is also Director of euRobotics AISBL, the European Association of Robotics. 

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