Winning the AI and analytics talent war

Working with large-scale data and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies (including automation, machine learning, and robotics), require a special kind of talent. With that in mind, organizations that develop new strategies for attracting, nurturing, and retaining the right kind of talent to advance their digitization agenda will innovate faster than their competitors.

Half the battle is knowing how to recognize the type of individuals to hire and retain. The other half of the battle includes exploration of new ways of organizing teams of individuals to leverage the digitization trends. Developing new strategies for partnerships and an eco-system of collaborators will also be a critical facet of an organization’s AI analytics talent strategy.

This past February, the Department of Information Systems gathered industry-academia leaders to discuss, debate, and present ideas to win the AI battle. Professor of Information Systems Raghu Santanam kicked off the Information Systems Industry Partners Conference.

We strongly believe a strategic approach to partnerships is extremely important, especially in this kind of high technology space. We need to build an ecosystem of collaborators across industries and the university space.

— Raghu Santanam, chair of the Department of Informaiton Systems

The half-day workshop featured three panels featuring 11 distinguished industry leaders who presented their views, opinions, and predictions of the current and future trends to win the AI and analytics talent war.

“Today is going to be replete with war metaphors,” said Professor of Information Systems Michael Goul, who is the associate dean for faculty and research. “I searched Google to find out the current thoughts on AI and analytics and got information back on how sky-high salaries are the way to recruit the ‘soldiers,’ ” he said. “AI is going to be needed to compete in business, but my search didn’t find a lot of ‘four-star generals.’ ”

Headlines on the first page of Goul’s Google search included a story in Business Insider, “Oracle pays artificial intelligence experts $6 million.” A New York Times article is titled, “AI researchers are making more than $1 million, even at nonprofits.” Also reported in The New York Times is the story, “Tech giants are paying huge salaries for scarce AI talent.” His search also brought up executive search firms promoting their ability to find AI talent and vendors offering free white papers about AI. The first mention of a university wasn’t until page 10 of the Google search results, and it was about a faculty member getting poached by a business for his AI expertise.

Who are the enemies in this?

If you’re going to have a war, there must be adversaries. The enemies are Facebook, Google, and Amazon — these big corporations lure faculty because they have access to primary data and can conduct experiments and publish wonderful research.”

— Michael Goul, who is the associate dean for faculty and research

Tencent and Alibaba are in the AI war, too. And China plans to be a world leader in AI by 2030. How? Goul says they recruited a Cornell professor and plan to enroll 400 students in fall and spring courses so they have 1,000 well-trained in AI by 2020.

The W. P. Carey School is following on China’s heels. “We’re getting ready to relaunch our Master of Science in Information Management degree,” said Stephen Taylor, associate dean of graduate programs.” It’s focused not only on tools. You’re not just hiring someone who has a set of tools in their back pocket, but someone who knows general and specific applications of those tools, understands the business context.”

The training ground

How can university-industry partnerships evolve to fill the talent gaps and train the next generation of workers? This is the question that opened the training ground panel with Managing Director at Deloitte Uday Katira, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Information Officer at Ports America Dr. Tianbing Qian, and Assistant Director and Chief Information Officer at the Arizona Department of Economic Security Sanjiv Rastogi.

These industry leaders shared their challenges in the AI and analytics talent war — from improving timeliness, quality, and taxpayer costs in serving citizens to capturing and utilizing port data coming to U.S. terminals.

“How can we leverage data being pumped out by all the new technology tools?” asked Qian. “It’s one of the main drivers to build this relationship with ASU.”

Rastogi suggested refreshing the conversation in every class with how to solve a business problem instead of how to be a tech expert. “Problem-solving is an area where there’s a gap,” he said.

“We need alignment with how school curriculum is being shaped,” Katira said.

The panel boiled it down to: The next generation of workers are people who are good at IT, business, and data science. This means adjusting education.

The internal battlefield

The four-person panel shared their challenges with identifying new talent and developing and retaining existing talent for an AI and analytics-rich work environment, as well as how they solve them.

Martin Colvey, IT director for technology company Insight Enterprises said he spends his time positioning teams to support new technology initiatives, such as how the data center team needs to transform to support the cloud.

“Create an environment where data scientists can thrive,” Colvey suggested, adding that mapping a career path gives them clarity and purpose.

Deloitte Chief Technology Officer Ken Corliss said the professional services company has to move faster than clients or they’ll be out of business. “The killer in this space is bureaucracy and red tape,” he said. “The data scientist can’t even get a refresh pull of data by themselves. They have to fill out a ticket. That’s soul-crushing. A lot of our rules are from a past time when tech cost a lot.” He recommended empowering data scientists, such as allowing them to choose their own tools.

“People move when they get bored,” said Dr. Sreekar Krishna, managing director of data science, AI, and innovation at KPMG Lighthouse, who explained he spends a lot of time ensuring his 80-plus team is happy. “The variety keeps them excited. I make sure the data scientists get variety, moving them around the business and showing them different problems within the company.”

Data and analytics are crucial to Dr. Juliana Tsai’s team. As the executive director of business analytics at Applebee’s, she charges the data scientists with optimizing the casual restaurant’s data to improve menu pricing, for instance, and learning why a food or drink campaign worked or didn’t based on the data.

“New grads coming out of school can describe what happened? But that doesn’t change the business,” Tsai said. “What changes the business is when they can answer the why did it happen, the how did it happen, and what do we need to do going forward in order to be more successful with the results we’ve seen? The curiosity component has to be there. When you find someone who has the quantitative skills, technology skills, and business skills to both answer immediate questions and future opportunities available to the business, those are the talents.”

Alliances and tactical formations

The conference wrapped up with a panel moderated by Professor of Supply Chain Management Thomas Choi, who is the Harold E. Fearon Chair of Purchasing Management and executive director of the W. P. Carey School of Business and CAPS Research.

Mayo Clinic’s Director of Supply Chain Management Bruce Gilmore, Choice Hotels Chief Technology Officer Brian Kirkland, and MUFG Chief Procurement and Financial Officer Joseph Martinez discussed new strategies for internal structures and external partnerships.