Employee discussion

“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance” was Silicon Valley forecaster Paul Saffo’s advice to technology investors caught up in the hype of emerging technologies that show lots of potential but lack the maturity to justify broad adoption. That statement rings true today as CIOs look for practical applications for a wave of emerging and potentially disruptive technologies, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality. According to one recent survey, employees would like to see IT and business leaders move a bit faster to bring these technologies into the workplace.

The EY Consulting survey of 1,001 white-collar US employees and their managers asked about their awareness of a dozen emerging technologies and the pace of their adoption within the respondent’s company. The findings reveal a disconnect between perception and reality, particularly around three of the 12 technologies the survey asked about: artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) and edge computing.

Most senior leaders in the survey — 85% — said they see the value of emerging technologies, yet 48% of all employees surveyed believe those same leaders are dragging their feet or don’t fully understand emerging technologies and their potential to change the business.

Words over action?

Faisal Alam, EY Americas Technology Solutions and Markets Leader, commented on the apparent disconnect between leaders who claim to have a clear grasp of new technologies and their potential, and nearly half of all employees who think they don’t. In his experience advising clients on how to test, trial and implement emerging tech, Alam sees the gap as a standard case of a “words-vs.-actions dynamic.” For younger employees, the skepticism may be especially acute given their familiarity and exposure to popular consumer technologies, such as VR headsets used in gaming. While 82% of survey respondents said they were familiar with VR/AR, just 24% said their company had adopted the technology.

“Senior leaders live in a world where they develop stories and narratives about technology and its role within the organization: painting a vision to the board, articulating a vision to employees or explaining results to Wall Street,” Alam says. “Employees are living in a world of ‘doing,’ and from their action-oriented perspective, they’re not seeing enough follow-through in terms of action and investment.”

Another large gulf emerged with AI/ML, with 75% of respondents expressing familiarity but just 35% saying their organization had deployed AI/ML technologies. The emergence of generative AI has created a wave of hype — and plenty of controversy — around AI. But CIOs and other leaders also must consider the risks of adopting the technology without proper governance of the data used to fuel AI/ML algorithms.

The democratization of AI in the form of publicly available tools, such as ChatGPT, creates additional concerns, as organizations must guard against the technology’s potential to generate false or inaccurate statements, or plagiarize works of art or writing protected by copyright. This latest example of “shadow IT,” in which employees bring unapproved technology into the workplace, could introduce a variety of security and other risks into the enterprise.

Rather than restricting access to technologies, Alam recommends putting the right governance and guardrails around it, allowing employees to experiment with it in a safe environment.

Benefits in the background

Matt Barrington, EY Americas Emerging Technologies Leader, leads a team responsible for developing the firm’s next-generation technology agenda for new business models. He attributes the contradiction between high awareness and low adoption of AI/ML and VR/AR more to communication than technology-averse leadership teams. Many employees likely already are benefiting from some of these new technologies because, unbeknownst to them, they have been implemented in other technologies or operate in the background, away from the user interface.

“A lot of the AI capabilities that are resident today aren’t necessarily visible to the end user,” Barrington says.

“Communication is important, but it’s also about better follow-through,” says Alam. “You want to show the workforce how these technologies are being used to enhance employee experience and move the needle on the business.”

Data here, there and everywhere

Not every technology in the study had high employee awareness. One example is edge computing — the distribution of computer processing and the delivery of data closer to the user. Edge technology is all but invisible to the average user, yet essential as massive amounts of data are generated and need to be collected, stored and processed with minimal latency. Barrington says he is seeing rapid adoption of edge computing among his clients as part of what EY Consulting calls distributed cloud platforms.

“Massive amounts of data that are exponentially larger than what we see today are going to be in constant motion,” Barrington says. By the end of 2025, EY Consulting practice estimates that 70% to 80% of a company’s data sets will be generated at the edge, and 80% of that data will be machine generated.

“Organizations are beginning to realize their data distribution models need to adapt to a new decentralized, distributed computing model where critical applications are going to be very different than what they are accustomed to today,” he says.

How to stay relevant

Alam and Barrington agree that history has rewarded those companies that invest proactively in emerging technologies and formalize how they approach innovation of new processes and business models. For example, organizations that had tested and deployed collaboration tools, such as Zoom, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were far more prepared for the shutdowns that closed most offices in March 2020.

Alam’s advice to leaders who want to move past the perception that their organization is late to embrace emerging technologies is to ensure that their CIO gets in front of the board to explain the practical implications of technologies that are generating a lot of hype. “Nine out of ten boards are probably discussing the implications of generative AI and what it means for their business,” he says. “This is the first time many people are getting an advance peek into something that is fast approaching, and boards need an experienced technologist advising them on how these technologies can be used to reimagine the business.”

Gaining an informed perspective on the future impacts of emerging technologies can better position leadership teams to focus on the types of investments that accelerate innovation. “We’re at an interesting tipping point,” says Barrington. “You have to have the right technical talent at very senior levels who can determine where they are on the adoption curve, and how soon they need to adapt to the opportunities and challenges of an emerging technology. For some, it will be a matter of survival.”

Uncover more insights on how emerging technologies are changing the workplace of the future in the full EY survey.