Kathy Gibson reports – Artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (GenAI) are constantly evolving, and starting to have real impact in the workplace. But employees are not yet sure how they feel about AI, according to a new report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

The study, “AI at Work: Friend or Foe”, attempts to unpack what is really happening in companies, and what the impact is for people actually working with AI.

“We see that it’s use is picking up, and is freeing up time,” says Sylvain Duranton, global leader of BCG X, the tech unit within BCG. “Now, companies are looking at what they should be doing to use the time freed up.”

Workers are a lot more confident about using AI (42%, up 16 percentage points from 2023): but there’s a paradox in that workers are more afraid of losing their jobs (42%, up 6 pps).

The job role also plays a part in how confident or anxious people are: Frontline employees, at 33%, are less confident about GenAI than managers (41%) and leaders (50%).

This correlates with a gap in training, with frontline employees (28%) less likely to have received training in how AI will affect their jobs, compared to leaders at 50%.

An interesting finding from the survey is that the Global South is more confident about the application of AI than the Global North. South Africa ranks at number five in terms of confidence at 46%, and ranks near the bottom in anxiety at 17%.

Confidence about the role of AI varies across industries: the Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT industry is the most confident at 45%, followed by Financial Institutions and Energy at 42%; and Healthcare and Consumers at 38%.

Healthcare and Consumer lead in anxiety at 20%, with Financial Institutions at 19%, and both TMT and Energy at 17%.

While confidence is still relatively low, particularly for frontline workers, it tends to increase with more frequent usage, says Jeff Walters, leader of digital advantage in Asia Pacific at BCG X.

While confidence for non-users is 20% it rises to 32% for rare users and up to 49% for regular users. Anxiety follows the trend, and decreases the more workers use the technology.

All users are employing AI more than before, with frontline employees showing the most rapid increase. Leaders have increased usage from 80% to 88%, managers have move from 46% to 64%, and frontline employees have increased from 20% to 52%.

“While last year was about experimenting with AI, this year we are seeing actual adoption,” Duranton says.

These differences in usage levels are playing out in the Global North versus the Global South, with emerging markets ahead on adoption.

Usage levels for leaders are 80% in the North, 86% in the South; for managers it’s 50% in the North and 71% in the South; and for frontline employees its 37% in the North and 57% in the South.

Duranton says this could be partly explained by the fact that the media age in the South is 25, compared to 39 in the North. “The South typically also has younger companies, with the ability to adopt things more easily.”

Along with the increase in GenAI usage, real world benefits are also being experienced: 84% of users report that they have saved time, 83% report increased speed, 81% improve the quality of work, 81% free up time for more strategic work, and 81% spend less time on administrative tasks.

With an average of five hours per week being saved per user, there are wide variations in how that time is being used. Respondents say they are able to perform more tasks (41%), perform new tasks (39%), experiment with GenAI (39%), work on strategic tasks (38%), finish work earlier (35%), connect with co-workers (30%), pursue professional development (30%), increase attention to/quality of tasks (29%), or connect with friends and family (26%).

The report reveals that 90% of South African respondents using GenAI for work say that the technology has saved them time, with 87% of respondents experiencing an improved quality of work, saving them more time to focus on strategic work (86%) and reducing time spent on administrative tasks (84%).

At least 28% (43% globally) of frontline workers in South Africa report using GenAI regularly for work, although 35% (42% globally) of respondents believe that their job might not exist in the next 10 years due to AI and GenAI.

The general sentiment is that AI and GenAI will transform jobs in the next 10 years, with 79% of local respondents agreeing with this.

BCG sounds a caution, though: workers believe that GenAI may save time, but it may also eliminate jobs.

Indeed, 79% of users believe that AI and GenAI will profoundly transform their jobs – and 42% believe their jobs might not exist in the next decade.

“Confidence in the technology rises with use, but comes with anxiety about the future their jobs,” Duranton explains. The study found that 49% of regular users believe their jobs could disappear, versus 24% of non-users and 33% of rare users.

“Organistions must understand this, in order to find the benefits and help the workforce understand why adopting AI is good for them,” says Vinciane Beauchene, global leader for talent and skills and expert in human and AI at BCG X.

The bottom line is that business leaders must transform their organisations to accommodate GenAI: 64% of leaders say they are implementing GenAI tools to begin reshaping their organisations.

She says a good example is in software development, one of the first areas GenAI was employed in companies. “Last year, companies were focused on adopting those technologies. This year, they realise that driving adoption is not enough as it just shift the bottleneck to somewhere else in the value chain.

“So now they are looking to reshape the lifecycle to get the real benefit.”

With a need to think more deeply about process design and the impact on roles, we are seeing a shift in the way leaders think about workers’ level of AI literacy and the cost of implementation.

A focus for workers is on getting the means to get the best use from the tools, but they are still last in line when it comes to training.

This shows up in the massive gap in who has received training on GenAI, from 50% of leaders to just 28% of frontline employees and 30% of managers. “It is still massively insufficient to drive the impact,” Beauchene says.

And, although the Global South is ahead on the Global North in the area of training, just 34% of frontline employees in the south have received GenAI training.

It is important to note that at least 24% of frontline workers in South Africa say that they have received training on how GenAI will transform their jobs. The report also highlights that 51% of leaders in the country have received training on how technology will impact or transform their jobs.

To really gain the benefit from AI and GenAI in their organisations, Beauchene says leaders need to focus on five imperatives:

* Establish a transformation-first mindset;

* Manage all of the organisation’s transformations;

* Build training muscle at scale;

* Emphasise how GenAI can increase value creation and employee joy; and

* Anticipate the evolution of roles, skills, operating models, data and governance.