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The 7 foundations of successful AI implementation

Published 28 September 2023 in Technology • 8 min read

Artificial intelligence is creating unprecedented opportunities and challenges for every CEO. While understanding the potential of these advanced technologies is essential, it’s not sufficient.

You and your leadership team must effectively integrate AI to transform your organization. AI can create a competitive advantage for your business by reducing costs, enhancing customer experience, improving decision-making, accelerating innovation, and reducing risk. However, the path to successful implementation – or, to put it another way, realization – is fraught with potential pitfalls, the biggest of which is failing to build a firm foundation for implementation. As the old saying goes, “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation.” To succeed, you must focus immediately on establishing the seven essential foundations for success: data, processes, technology ecosystem, governance, talent, training, and leadership.

1. Do your data dirty work

Data is the fuel that will power your AI systems, which are highly dependent on the quality, quantity, and accessibility of data – garbage in, garbage out. In healthcare, for example, AI systems use vast amounts of patient data to improve diagnoses or predict health trends. However, these systems are only as good as the data they are fed. Hence, healthcare organizations, like any other businesses embarking on the AI journey, must establish robust data rationalization and management practices.

Before embarking on potentially costly data cleanup initiatives, you must identify the highest potential use cases you will pursue. Engaging in extensive, unfocused efforts with data is a real risk for many organizations.

Once the right use cases have been identified, the next step is to catalog and clean up data scattered across various systems and formats within the organization. In healthcare, this could mean integrating data from different departments like radiology, pathology, and general patient records. Once cleaned and organized, this data can be consolidated into data lakes or warehouses, making it more readily accessible for AI systems.

While ensuring data quality and accessibility, you must also implement effective data management protocols. This is particularly crucial in healthcare, where sensitive patient data is handled. These protocols provide data usage, quality control, privacy, and security guidelines. The healthcare sector also presents unique challenges related to data acquisition, demanding strategies to gather relevant health data without infringing on patient privacy rights.

2. Get your process house in order

Rather than merely automating existing processes, you should view AI as a catalyst for reinvention and streamlining. For example, in healthcare, AI can revolutionize the patient appointment process. Beyond basic automation, AI can use predictive modeling to forecast patient behaviors, optimize appointment schedules, and decrease wait times, improving patient satisfaction.

Beyond identifying priority use cases, the first step towards this transformation is identifying areas for improvement and inefficiencies within the associated current processes. By conducting a comprehensive audit of existing workflows, bottlenecks and redundancies can be identified and addressed.

AI healthcare
It also involves thoughtful integration of the various systems supporting specific use cases, particularly in complex fields like healthcare

Then you must set clear and quantifiable targets for process transformation. In healthcare, these could be specific reductions in patient wait times or increased daily patient appointments. Having well-defined objectives provide your organization with a roadmap for AI implementation and a yardstick for evaluating progress.

Finally, you must design and implement new, AI-driven processes to achieve your goals. This could require integrating advanced technologies, staff retraining, or organizational restructuring. The ultimate result is more streamlined and effective systems that, in the healthcare example, enhance patient experience and boost overall efficiency.

3. Build a cohesive technology ecosystem

Implementing AI requires robust and scalable technology for complex computations and handling massive data sets. But it also involves thoughtful integration of the various systems supporting specific use cases, particularly in complex fields like healthcare. The good news is that the cloud’s scalability can comfortably accommodate the needed processing power and data growth, a phenomenon prevalent as healthcare organizations digitize and store more patient records and other related data.

The real challenge lies not in the base infrastructure but in integrating applications, especially when legacy systems are involved. These legacy systems’ complex integration and scalability issues pose significant hurdles. You must therefore adopt a comprehensive approach to your entire IT landscape, including addressing challenges posed by legacy systems and focusing on creating a cohesive and efficient technology ecosystem for AI implementation.

4. Prioritize good governance

Given the potential for misuse of AI systems, effective governance, especially concerning compliance with privacy and data security, is essential. Your AI systems must be transparent, explainable, and fair for them to be trusted.

For example, AI systems can be employed in healthcare to diagnose diseases or predict patient health trends. Yet the technology must do more than provide accurate results; it must also illuminate the path it took to reach those conclusions. Physicians, other healthcare providers, and patients must understand how the AI system arrived at a particular diagnosis or prediction to trust its outcomes. This principle, known as “explainable AI,” fosters trust and acceptance, which are paramount in a field as sensitive as healthcare.

In contexts like healthcare, AI applications must comply with strict data privacy and security regulations. From the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), these legal frameworks protect customer data and ensure the ethical use of AI. You must build mechanisms that verify that your AI systems adhere to all relevant regulations — it’s a necessity. Proper governance ensures that your AI implementation is ethical, legal, and trustworthy, mitigating potential reputational and legal risks.

5. Win the war for talent

Harnessing the power of AI requires an array of specialized skills including data science, AI algorithm programming, machine learning model training, project management, and AI ethics.

A strategic approach to developing the required skill base begins with assessing existing organizational skills to identify strengths and prioritize areas for augmentation. This provides a clear picture of current capabilities and future needs.

“You must define the goals, establish priorities, allocate resources, and critically treat implementation as a transformation process that you must lead proactively.”

In contexts like healthcare, the application of AI extends beyond technical aspects. Medical staff must be upskilled to effectively use AI systems, which might involve training on AI-enabled diagnostic tools or decision-support techniques.

There may also be a need to recruit external AI specialists, such as data scientists or AI engineers, who can collaborate with existing staff to develop bespoke AI solutions because the relevant talent is a scarce resource many organizations won’t be able to attract (and can’t afford to pay).

With the pace of AI evolution, promoting a culture of continuous learning is essential. Encouraging and supporting skill updates ensures the organization remains at the forefront of AI integration. Success in AI implementation fundamentally rests on the people who power it.

6. Prepare your troops

Your managers will be on the front line of AI implementation, and they must be prepared for battle. This requires the development of tailored training programs that effectively prepare your front-line managers for the AI transformation journey. For example, in telemedicine, AI’s potential to automate routine tasks and assist in remote consultations introduces a significant level of change that managers and their teams must be equipped to handle.

Your managers need to understand in-depth how AI will alter work structures. They also must encourage a culture of continuous learning and effectively manage the inevitable changes. This involves addressing staff concerns and apprehensions, identifying skills gaps, and promoting necessary upskilling initiatives. In certain scenarios, managers may require technical training on AI tools to lead their teams effectively.

Managers must also be prepared to mitigate the risks associated with AI, including possible technical issues and security vulnerabilities. They should also be alert to ethical considerations such as algorithmic bias and privacy concerns. Furthermore, they should be able to track and measure the success of AI implementation, identifying areas for improvement and acknowledging progress. Ultimately, comprehensive and well-structured training programs are integral to the successful adoption of AI, ensuring its transformative potential is fully harnessed.

7. Lead the way

Finally, as CEO, you must be the primary driver of laying the foundation for successful AI adoption. You must define the goals, establish priorities, allocate resources, and critically treat implementation as a transformation process that you must lead proactively. You must educate yourself and your leadership team on the technology and its impact and be “thoughtfully aggressive” in moving things forward.

As described in a previous article, Generative AI is like a technological tsunami. Its strength and potential are immense, its velocity breathtaking. Like any tsunami, it’s relentless and unforgiving to those who are unprepared. However, with the proper knowledge, skills, and preparation, you can ride this wave, harnessing its immense power to propel your business forward.

To do this, you must establish a coherent and powerful AI vision that meshes with your organization’s culture, mission, and business objectives. And you must cultivate a culture fostering innovation, collaboration, and continuous learning, ensuring your entire team is engaged and committed to the AI journey.

Leadership is crucial when aligning AI initiatives with your organization’s objectives. A project might involve utilizing AI to drive operational efficiency or to deliver more personalized services, but the ultimate aim should always align with the broader business strategy.

By effectively addressing data management, process optimization, technology integration, effective governance, talent acquisition, manager training, and leadership, your organization can successfully navigate the path to successful AI realization.

Additionally, you must lead the process of crafting a detailed roadmap for AI implementation. This includes identifying key steps, assigning roles and responsibilities, setting timelines, and allocating resources. This roadmap should be realistic, flexible, and comprehensive, considering potential obstacles and changes in the AI landscape.

To succeed in AI implementation is a complex journey, demanding a relentless focus on establishing the seven essential foundations for success. By effectively addressing data management, process optimization, technology integration, effective governance, talent acquisition, manager training, and leadership, your organization can successfully navigate the path to successful AI realization. As we hurtle into the next era of the digital age, the businesses that will thrive are those that can adeptly leverage AI to their advantage. Yours can be one of them.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.

Ralf Weissbeck

The former Group Chief Information Officer and a member of the Executive Committee at The Adecco Group.

Ralf Weissbeck is the former CIO of The Adecco Group. He co-led the recovery of the 2022 Akka Technologies ransomware attack and led the recovery of the 2017 Maersk ransomware attack that shut down 49,000 devices and 7000 servers and destroyed 1000 applications.


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