Global Study: C-Suite Optimism on AI and Why First Movers Win

New Workday research shows senior executives recognize AI adoption is a must, with first movers likely to claim competitive advantage. Yet, some feel stalled on the sidelines.

There’s one thing business leaders agree on right now: AI adoption is a business imperative. Seven in 10 senior executives expect AI and machine learning (ML) to transform both their organization’s core functions and the global business landscape in the next three years, according to the new “C-Suite Global AI Indicator Report: AI Is the Ultimate Level-Up” by Workday in collaboration with FT Longitude. There’s even more consensus around near-term upsides: 98% of CEOs say there would be immediate business benefits within the organization from implementing AI.

Yet the global survey of 2,355 executives also reveals a pervasive tension: Business leaders are near unanimous that AI adoption is a must—and doing so will deliver benefits—but when it comes to taking those first, decisive steps, many seem stuck in a holding pattern. Nearly half of CEOs say their organization is unprepared to adopt AI and ML, and more than 1 in 4 (28%) say they want to see how these technologies affect their organization before they decide on an approach.

Optimism About Human Potential

With all business functions agreeing that increased productivity is the biggest potential benefit they see coming from AI (see chart below), it’s clear that the connection between technology and human potential is key. 

Amid fraught debates over whether AI might supplant workers, many business leaders seem eager to implement AI in ways that demonstrate the technology’s ability to augment—not replace—their people.

In fact, 80% of a group of leaders we’ve named “AI Pioneers” have successfully used AI and ML to streamline workflows and augment the capacity of their workforces. And, of all business leaders surveyed, nearly half (47%) believe AI will significantly amplify human potential.

“We believe in the power of AI to unlock human potential,” says Chandler Morse, vice president, corporate affairs at Workday. “We know how these technologies can benefit economic opportunities for people—that’s our business. But people won’t use technologies they don’t trust. Skills are the way [forward]—and not only skills, but also skills backed by a thoughtful, ethical, and responsible implementation of AI with regulatory safeguards that help facilitate trust. It’s incredibly exciting.”

What’s Holding Business Leaders Back?

Despite widespread fervor for AI, many organizations seem stuck at the starting gate. Of all organizations surveyed, only 16% of respondents say they are currently piloting the technology, while 2 in 5 (39%) are either still in the initial research stages or haven’t even started researching. Why? An all-too-common stumbling block, the report finds, is bad data.

AI and ML depend on high-quality, reliable data. But data integrity is a weak spot for the many organizations that wrangle huge volumes of information across patchwork systems, static spreadsheets, and fragmented processes.

“We believe in the power of AI to unlock human potential.”

Chandler Morse Vice President, Corporate Affairs Workday

“In the majority of organizations that I deal with, there are always a few pockets of very good, clean data,” says Michael Schrage, research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan). “But very few organizations have the quality of labeling, lineage, and governance that allows them to immediately take their data to reliably train machine learning algorithms—or to fine-tune a ChatGPT or a Llama.”

Your insights are only as good as your data. Indeed, 67% of CEOs identify potential errors as a top risk of AI and ML. But data integrity isn’t the only issue holding business leaders back. And nearly half (49%) of CEOs say their organization is unprepared to adopt AI and ML, with businesses lacking some or all of the tools, skills and knowledge needed to integrate these technologies.

The Road Ahead

When it comes to capitalizing on innovation, speed is of the essence—and that’s certainly true with AI. “The people who sit on the sidelines are missing all that learning time that those who are building their AIs now are benefiting from,” Ajay Agrawal, professor at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, shares in the report. “The faster you get in, the faster your AI starts to learn.”

We’d all be wise to remember the early days of the internet—many of the brands that made early attempts at leveraging the new technology are still with us today. The brands that didn’t, or that waited so long they never had a chance of catching up to their first-mover competitors, are no longer around to remind us of what happens (or doesn’t) to companies that wait too long.

For more C-suite insights on AI and first-mover advantage, download “C-Suite Global AI Indicator Report: AI Is the Ultimate Level-Up.”