Parallel pathing: The secret unlock of AI in the workplace

AnalysisMar 15, 2024
Parallel cities

By Darrell Etherington

At the recent Transform HR tech event in Las Vegas, ‘AI’ was mentioned in just about every single sentence I heard — in the expo hall, on programming stages, and in conversation. Everyone had plenty of thoughts about what impact AI would have on the workforce, and on the business of managing people. But one insight in particular stood out, because it provided a possible answer as to what might replace low-impact work for junior and inexperienced staff, rather than just suggesting that AI would free them up to provide the generic more 'quality' work.

Speaking on a panel about Gen Z and the workforce, my colleague and OMERS Ventures Senior Managing Partner Michael Yang articulated that young workers are extremely comfortable using and experimenting with AI, whereas some of their more experienced coworkers might express reluctance, hesitancy or fear around adopting and deploying AI-based tools.

The discussion also brought up anxieties by younger workers about what opportunities will be available in the workplace if much of the rote entry-level work junior employees are often tasked with are replaced by AI. We’ve already seen that happen, and it’s explicitly the goal of plenty of startups, including legal tech ventures like Harvey that are replacing the labor typically assigned to paralegals and law students/fresh grads.

Refactoring much of the ‘breadcrumb’ work typically assigned to inexperienced workers definitely has implications for skills, expertise and knowledge transference, but I’ll leave that to a separate discussion. What I find most interesting is a possible configuration of a work environment in which you’re saving opportunity cost by having AI do repetitive, relatively easy tasks, and freeing up junior employees to participate with their more experienced colleagues on more equal footing.

We all know about the naive founder paradigm — the entrepreneur who, not knowing the industry they’re wading into, is able to do net new things just because they also don’t know what’s supposedly ‘against the rules.’ I think similar benefits might accrue to having early career employees parallel path on more ambitious projects and initiatives, the kind that would normally be reserved for those with more experience balancing strategy and execution in standing up programs and delivering products.

One great example of where having an internal ‘bake-off’ has worked to tremendous effect for a tech company is SpaceX’s Starship program: Early on in the Starship's development, SpaceX had both a team in Florida and one in Texas working on development of prototypes of the rocket in parallel. The Texas team eventually won out, but internal competition drove accelerated results, and multiple approaches to solve complex problems.

Tasking parallel teams — including one basically operating ‘out of their depth’ against a squad made up of seasoned veterans — has seemed like a luxury reserved for well-capitalized companies like SpaceX in the past. But the oft-repeated ability of AI in the workplace to ‘free up’ the time of employees to focus on more valuable contributions is exactly what we need to bring this to bear across a wide range of companies at various stages of funding and maturity.

Even in less risk-tolerant workplaces, this should be embraced. It’s a way to distribute and amortize an extensive R&D budget with flat headcount spend, provided employers avoid the temptation to see AI features as justification for headcount reduction. And the multiplicity of thought and approaches that could result open up very tempting possibilities for true business transformation over time — all while keeping the value of human contribution at the fore.