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Getting board approval for AI - is this the biggest stumbling block?
personSooraj Shah eventFeb 27, 2019

Getting board approval for AI - is this the biggest stumbling block?

There’s so much interest around artificial intelligence, but do business leaders buy-in to the hype? Sooraj Shah questions why leaders might be deterred from investing in the biggest current IT trend.

An average of $36m was spent in the last fiscal year on advanced AI, according to a report by global consulting firm Protiviti in collaboration with ESI Thoughtlab. Last year, Gartner said that the global business value derived from AI would hit $1.2 trillion – an increase of 70 percent from 2017. Meanwhile, IDC forecasts worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems to reach $77.6bn in 2022.

No matter which report you read, you will see similar findings – artificial intelligence is here, and it’s here to stay.

But while AI usually hits the headlines for either being the tech that takes over people’s jobs or as a cool new technology that makes us believe we’re living in a real-life Minority Report, there are some obstacles of even getting AI approved – most notably board approval.

In fact, in a Corinium Intelligence survey of C-level executives, getting board approval or buy-in was the most selected answer by organisations when asked what the barriers of AI adoption were, with 54% of respondents stating this was an issue. When the same set of respondents were asked what level of leadership buy-in they would say they currently have for AI adoption, the answers ranged from 21-40% (38%), 41-60% (30%), 61-80% (25%). Perhaps unsurprisingly only 7% picking the 81-100% range.

This suggests that many leaders within an organisation are yet to be convinced on the merits of using AI. Similar results have been found in other reports – with Cognizant recently finding that 40% of executives believed securing senior management commitment, buy-in by the business and even adequate budget were extremely or very challenging.

This is despite the Corinium respondents believing that there are various benefits to using AI – with the main benefit being improved customer service (35%), followed by decision making (20%) and targeting (16%).

Despite many IT leaders believing AI has its use, many businesses are clearly not yet fully committed to AI’s central role in advancing business objectives.

Source: Adobe Stock

Nick Patience, co-founder and research VP of software at 451 Research suggests that the key is making non-technical leaders understand how AI can solve specific business problems.

“In the 451 Research Voice of the Enterprise AI & Machine Learning 2H 2018 Survey, we found that in 39% of organisations, the final decision flows through executive management or IT management. Since these stakeholders often lack technical proficiency, it’s crucial to make sure they understand how AI and machine learning can solve specific business problems,” he says.

“Our data shows that, in many cases, experts from operations, R&D, data science analytics and legal and compliance are involved with the decision-making process to better articulate the value of investing in AI and machine learning technology to the executives making the final decision,” he adds.

The lack of leadership buy-in may be because leaders are deterred from the almost constant hype surrounding AI – but Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at the Department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) doesn’t believe there is a stigma attached to the technology, nor does he think that leadership teams see it merely as a fad or a phase.

“I don’t think so, there is an element of hype and whether you look at it as a good or bad thing is subjective, but for me the approach isn’t different to any other technology. We had this same debate back when I was CIO at Save the Children, over the use of blockchain.

“Would I expect to go to the board and explain the inner workings of HTTPS over email? Probably not – the focus has to be on what is the real-life problem that has to be solved, and if there is a business need and requirement for it then the technology decision is kind of a part of that journey,” he says.

Hoods believes that the technology quite rightly gets the focus and attention but it’s not to say AI is used because it is a buzzword.

“It’s like every investment in technology, it has to be useful,” he states.

Another reason that leaders may be put off any investment in AI, is that they feel this could either jeopardise their own role - or more likely that employees who are fearful of the same fate could dissuade them to make any investment in this area. Corinium’s research found that the level of employee buy-in for AI adoption was much lower than the leadership buy-in, with the highest proportion (37%) stating it was between 1 and 20%. There is likely to be some link between employees not wanting the business to make these shifts, and leaders deciding not to upset their staff.

Source: Adobe Stock

There is also a case for leaders not being sure of what to do with their employees if they did implement AI; Microsoft UK found that less than half (46%) of UK leaders believe it is worth re-training their current workforce, and more than a third (36%) are unsure about how to start doing so. Once again, the issue with know-how could be stopping many leaders from taking the plunge and going ahead with AI.

But sometimes, the obstacle isn’t necessarily that CEOs or other leaders don’t want to implement AI, it’s that they want to use the technology without giving its purpose any thought.

“The board and investors are normally the ones demanding AI. The challenge is finding practical and commercial applications which live up to the billing,” says Mark Ridley, the former CIO of and ex-CTO of Blenheim Chalcot. 

It seems that whether leaders want or don’t want AI, there is a lack of knowledge around the area at the moment, and it’s up to IT leaders to fix this. That means eradicating any employee fears, showing how AI can provide a return-on-investment (ROI), and simplifying how the tech can help the business hit its targets. 

About the author
Sooraj Shah
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Sooraj Shah is a journalist, editor and copywriter specialising in B2B technology with strong contacts in the IT and technology industry. He is currently contributing editor for New Statesman Tech and Contributor for Forbes. As a freelance journalist he has written for publications including The Guardian, Computer Weekly, Diginomica, CIO UK, The Register, Computing, Infosecurity Magazine, SC Magazine UK, Mobile Europe, Hot Topics and IT Pro.

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