Analysis: Half of CEOs Say AI Could Replace Most of Their Role, Survey Says
MBA programs train top managers, but is the training of these future leaders adapting rapidly enough in the face of artificial intelligence? The jaw-dropping results of a new poll by edX found that CEOs and C-suite chief executives believe AI will redefine their roles by performing much larger shares of their job responsibilities than ever thought possible.
If there’s only one poll of CEOs and C-suite executives that MBA students and alumni should spend their time reviewing during 2023, this is that poll—and here’s why.
Roughly half of the C-suite executives reported to edX that artificial intelligence could automate or completely replace “most” or even “all” of the functions they perform within their own jobs.
But if that finding wasn’t surprising enough, the poll also found that chief executives are open to receiving substantial assistance from AI. For example, 47 percent of those chief executives said that AI should replace “most” or “all” of the chief executive officer role. Specifically, almost half of the CEOs in that group believe that AI should automate or completely replace “most” or even “all” of their own current jobs.
“It is clear that a majority [of executives] think that Al is going to be transformative,” says Dr. Anant Agarwal. He’s the founder of edX, and now serves as the chief open education officer at edX’s parent firm, 2U, while also teaching electrical engineering and computer science as a professor at MIT.
Dr. Agarwal told CNBC that during his tenure as edX’s CEO, he spent about four-fifths of his time on “reports and repeated presentations, or saying the same thing to a lot of people in different ways.” He suggests that if AI could take over those mundane responsibilities, it could help CEOs focus on “the things that make them CEOs. . .vision and dreaming about new products and selling.”
The Competitive Advantages of AI
Additional findings in the report suggest that MBA students can exploit competitive career advantages against other job candidates by rapidly developing their AI skills. For example:
Top management is not only looking for AI-competent employees, but 87 percent of the chief executives say they’re struggling to find talent with AI skills.
That’s quite a surprise when one considers that the pollsters conducted this survey in July 2023—a full eight months after the explosive launch of ChatGPT at the end of the preceding November. Moreover, as discussed below, capable individuals like MBA students and alumni should be able to learn fundamental AI skills in only a few hours.
Most MBA students and alums will want to pay close attention to Page 10 of this report. There, we learn that the C-suite executives believe that understanding how to use artificial intelligence will help them achieve their own career objectives. Here’s that page’s key passage:
For example, 73 percent think executives who know how to use AI are more likely to be promoted to CEO, and 85 percent believe the next CEO at their company will have AI experience/knowledge.
Fifty-six percent of the C-suite executives anticipate that within five years, AI will partially or completely replace their firm’s executive-level roles. This remarkable finding sharply contrasts with the opinions of the non-executive workers. Only 20 percent of the latter group believe that “most” or “all” of their job could be completely replaced or automated by AI before 2028.
As the pollsters point out, there’s clearly a disconnect here between the perceptions of the C-suite executives and those of the rank-and-file knowledge workers. MBA students can exploit this disconnect by aligning their capabilities, resumes, and job interview presentations more closely with the qualities sought by the chief executives.
The survey found that 77 percent of the C-suite believes AI skills will gain greater importance by 2025. This finding suggests that MBA students who spend additional time and effort to develop their AI skills now should be in higher demand throughout the years to come.
At least among this sample of chief executives, AI skills mean better pay and more promotions for their employees. Eighty-three percent of the chief executives believe that employees skilled in using artificial intelligence should be paid more, and 74 percent believe that they should be promoted more frequently.
The AI Training Disconnect
At the time of this writing in November 2023, about three-quarters of business schools claim they had already added AI instruction to their curricula, according to a new survey by the recently-rebranded Graduate Business Curriculum (GBC) Roundtable, the business school association previously known as the MBA Roundtable. However, a more careful review of that poll reveals that only 15 percent of the schools say they significantly or fully teach generative AI within their curricula, with only 19 percent reporting dedicated courses.
One might assume that the companies who hire MBAs might currently provide better AI training than MBA programs. But a surprising section in edX’s study suggests that across the nation, neither executives nor employees appear to have much confidence in their firms’ training and development programs when it comes to artificial intelligence skills.
For example, almost 90 percent of C-suite executives and 57 percent of the knowledge workers say they sought AI learning content like courses, training, or webinars away from their companies. Many paid for these programs out of their own pockets.
Fifty-eight percent of the survey’s employees report taking steps to adapt to artificial intelligence by using it at work or on their own time. But only 24 percent of the employees are learning AI skills with help from their firm’s training and development department. Moreover, one in five say that they’re learning AI skills by themselves since their organization doesn’t offer the “right” training.
The poll also reveals that even though 84 percent of the employees expect their company to train them so they can stay up to date with AI, many of those employers are falling short of the workers’ expectations. Although 77 percent of the workers say they’d be more likely to stay longer with their company if it offered better AI training, two-fifths of them are so dissatisfied that they say they’ll probably leave their company in the next 12 months to find a new employer that offers better learning opportunities. This proportion climbs to 51 percent among younger workers.
This dismal training situation seems curious, given that almost three-quarters of the C-suite executives believe that their firm should boost its AI training budgets over the next one to two years.
And oddly enough, a peculiar survey item that “companies are the new post-secondary colleges” garnered agreement from 93 percent of the executives and 81 percent of the workers.
Apparently, many of those respondents believe that companies bear responsibility for their employees’ continuing education.
Independent AI Study for MBAs
Given that neither business schools nor companies appear to be providing much in the way of AI training, how can MBA students who still haven’t test-driven this new technology learn about artificial intelligence?
The foundational skill for most effective applications of artificial intelligence on the job is known as prompt engineering. We take an in-depth look at this skill in a May 2023 feature article on our sister site, OnlineEducation.com, entitled “The $335,000 ChatGPT Skill Savvy Online Students Need to Know.” After reviewing that article and the resources we cite, most MBA students and alumni should be able to learn that skill in two or three hours by experimenting with their own prompts in ChatGPT, Bing AI, or Google Bard.
Those who need a more thorough introduction to AI and prompt engineering might want to try a short online course. Classes like those offered by providers such as Coursera and edX seem like reasonable choices.
However, because the artificial intelligence world seems to be changing weekly, there’s no guarantee that the AI applications and resources recommended by any online course will remain current.
For example, the University of Michigan recently introduced one such course. But by the time we reviewed this course in October 2023, a dedicated AI writing assistant application Michigan’s experts recommended within the course’s content had already been discontinued by its software developer.
One CEO’s Contrary Opinion
Because such a large proportion of the chief executives reported in this poll that they’re struggling to find talent with AI skills, sharpening those skills will likely deliver competitive career advantages for MBAs. At the same time, not all experts agree with Dr. Agarwal that AI will necessarily be transformative for CEOs by liberating them from mundane tasks so they can focus on visionary functions like new product development.
One vocal dissenter is Stephanie Mehta, the CEO of Mansueto Ventures, which owns the magazines Inc. and Fast Company. An industry veteran with 31 years of experience, she had served as editor-in-chief at Fast Company from 2018 to 2022 and had previously worked as an editor at Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, and Fortune.
In her provocative editorial titled “Will AI Make CEOs Obsolete?” Mehta correctly points out that the edX poll didn’t reveal specifics on which aspects of a CEO’s role AI might replace. Then she takes exception to Dr. Agarwal’s “transformative” prediction:
You’ll forgive me for rolling my eyes. We’ve been hearing for years about how AI won’t eliminate jobs but rather free up workers to be more creative. Yet I haven’t found any examples of dreary jobs that have been magically made more fulfilling because of AI, nor are there tales of say, data-entry clerks who had time to redesign their workstation user interface because automation filled in their spreadsheets for them. I’m being facetious, but it’s true.
Instead, Mehta argues for several reasons that artificial intelligence will actually increase the complexity and responsibility of a CEO’s job:
AI will surely impact CEOs, but not because they’ll be spending less time working on presentations or drafting employee memoranda. (A lot of CEOs delegate that stuff anyway.) They’ll have to lead workforces that are both energized and terrified by AI, and they may need to reorganize and restructure their companies—and yes, downsize—based on the ways technology is changing the way their employees work. Some employees will push back on the proliferation of AI, as we saw during the recently settled Hollywood writers’ strike. And CEOs will need to establish ethical guidelines for the use of generative AI.
In many ways, AI could make the job of CEO more complex. Understanding, leading through, and anticipating the risks of this new technology may add responsibilities to the CEO’s role, not eliminate them.