Research from Harvard, MIT, and Wharton uncovers drawbacks of depending on junior staff for AI training

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The adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) systems is a priority for many companies, and it is commonly believed that younger, tech-savvy employees will play a crucial role in teaching their managers how to effectively use these new tools. However, a recent study conducted by researchers from Harvard Business School, MIT, Wharton, and other institutions challenges this assumption, specifically when it comes to the rapidly-evolving technology of generative AI.

The study, conducted in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group, revealed that junior employees who experimented with a generative AI system called GPT-4 made recommendations for mitigating risks that contradicted expert advice. This finding suggests that companies cannot solely rely on reverse mentoring, where younger employees mentor their superiors, to ensure the responsible use of AI.

The researchers interviewed 78 junior consultants in mid-2023 who had recently participated in an experiment that gave them access to GPT-4 for a business problem-solving task. These consultants lacked technical AI expertise but shared the tactics they would recommend to alleviate managers’ concerns about risks associated with the AI system.

However, the study found that the risk mitigation tactics proposed by junior employees were often based on a lack of deep understanding of the technology’s capabilities. Their suggestions focused on changing human behavior rather than AI system design and were limited to project-level interventions rather than broader organization or industry-wide solutions.

To better understand why junior professionals may not be the best source of expertise in using emerging technologies like generative AI, the researchers emphasized the need to consider both status threat and risks to valued outcomes. They highlighted AI’s exponential rate of change, superhuman capabilities, and reliance on vast amounts of data as key factors contributing to the challenges faced by junior consultants in effectively leveraging the technology.

These findings come at a time when companies are grappling with the opportunities and challenges presented by generative AI systems. These systems have the ability to engage in open-ended dialogue, answer follow-up questions, and assist with writing, analysis, and coding tasks. By shedding light on the limitations of relying solely on digitally native employees to guide AI implementation from the bottom-up, the study underscores the importance of top-down AI governance, expert input, and upskilling across all levels of the organization.

As technological advancements and adoption rates accelerate, senior professionals are faced with the responsibility of quickly implementing emerging technologies while also anticipating future versions and their implications. To effectively lead their teams and organizations in navigating the rapidly expanding technological frontier, seniors need to develop a deep understanding of new technologies and their associated capabilities.

These insights from the study highlight the need for a balanced approach to AI implementation. While tapping into the knowledge and experience of younger employees is valuable, it is equally important for senior professionals to seek expert advice and continuously upskill themselves in order to effectively navigate the complexities of emerging technologies like generative AI.

In conclusion, while it is commonly assumed that younger, tech-savvy employees will lead the way in teaching their managers how to effectively use AI systems, a study on generative AI challenges this assumption. Junior employees who experimented with a generative AI system made risk mitigation recommendations that contradicted expert advice. This highlights the need for a balanced approach to AI implementation, with senior professionals taking an active role in developing a deep understanding of new technologies and seeking expert input to ensure responsible and effective use of AI within their organizations.

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