The rise of the chief artificial intelligence officer

Photo: @mao via Twenty20
Mar 08, 2019

In February, Levi’s hired its first chief artificial intelligence officer, ahead of an expected IPO.

Katia Walsh joined the 146-year-old jeans maker from Vodafone, where she was chief data and analytics officer.      

For a company of this size ($5 billion in 2017 revenues) and legacy to hire an executive for AI is a big move. Many companies of similar or larger size lack an AI leader, let alone have a CDO (chief data officer). The decision recognizes the potential to harness all manner of data to drive growth and operational efficiencies using AI and other analytic methods.

Even without a C-level data and analytics executive, it’s probably a good idea to get a handle right now on advanced analytics opportunities relative to your business strategy. The challenge is identifying the right person to take the reins — and this person can be a technology leader like the CIO or CTO, or it can be a CMO or CFO. Ideally, it’s the CEO.

Whoever leads, three aspects should be considered:

Challenge of many projects: As noted in a blog from the International Institute For Analytics, AI progresses at a linear rather than an exponential rate in part because the technology supports tasks rather than entire jobs or processes and requires multiple projects “to make much of a difference in organizational performance.” The time machine learning takes to process data and challenges obtaining data are other hurdles.

Challenge of the right people: Technology, data and business teams have to be connected and working alongside each other in some cases to support AI initiatives.

Challenge of cultural change: Organizational alignment and agility issues that impede the adoption of Big Data and AI initiatives are often rooted in resistance to cultural change.

This whiteboard diagram suggest one way to organize thoughts relative to the three challenges:

A lot’s going on in this picture. The general idea is to organize and scale use case opportunities to improve confidence as quickly as possible, given the state of your company’s competencies and available resources. Success begets more success, confidence and business value.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see the business need for a chief artificial intelligence officer at the c-level for retailers and consumer brands? What advice would you have for making the right hire and positioning the roll relative to data scientists, CIOs and the rest of the c-team?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Although the vast majority of retailers and brands have not undertaken AI seriously as of today, I believe a peer to the CTO may make sense for AI."

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15 Comments on "The rise of the chief artificial intelligence officer"

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Art Suriano

If not today, it is a needed position in the future. The problem is that there is so much technology being offered to businesses, a lot of which is still in the development stage with no guarantee it will be successful once developed. If it is something to be offered to customers, there is no assurance they will embrace it and, as a result, many businesses are scrambling not knowing what to invest in and too often throwing good dollars away on failed attempts. Those dollars could have better use elsewhere. So having a Chief AI Officer will hopefully guide companies in choosing the right technology to invest in with a better chance of success. I would recommend every company be looking to add that position as soon as possible.

Bob Amster

Tell me what s/he will do and I will tell you if the position should be at the C-level. I hardly think so. Too many “Chiefs” may spoil the broth (pardon the malapropism).

Jeff Sward

I am not an AI expert, so for me this article did a great job of profiling the challenge of implementing AI. I get nervous that AI is viewed as some kind of silver bullet that will solve all kinds of problems. I walk the mall and see a lot of mediocre to bad storytelling, and a lot of prior season inventory. Why can’t good old fashioned human intelligence do a better job…a much, much better job…?

Zel Bianco

If there is already a CIO in place, it would make sense to have the the lead on AI be under the CIO as he or she should have the broader view of the overall technology road map for the organization.
AI and data science and the overall technology go-to-market strategy and execution should all be connected. You need one “head chef.”

David Weinand

If AI is going to live up to the many promises its proponents are making – someone will have to drive that. Is that a “Chief?” I hope not – but someone that can oversee data and AI will be smart.

Ralph Jacobson

Over the most recent years, as the CIO’s role has expanded, CTOs were established. Although the vast majority of retailers and brands have not undertaken AI seriously as of today, I believe a peer to the CTO may make sense for AI, both reporting to the CIO, as too many business functions would overlap if at a peer level with the CIO.

Adrian Weidmann

In order to compete and win in the omnichannel (I would love to hear from folks that have a description from the shopper’s perspective – other than just shopping) shopping landscape, data-driven content AND 100 percent visibility to the inventory supply chain is mandatory. This mandates that this discipline and all of its influence and effects on the business and customers are represented in the C-suite. I’m not convinced that the position should be specific to artificial intelligence but the intelligent use of a broad spectrum of data to meet digitally-empowered customer expectations certainly should be woven into the brand fiber of any retailer and/or brand manufacturer.

Cynthia Holcomb
There is an ongoing challenge in computer science to build Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) AI driven, human-centric intelligent systems, especially in the area of e-commerce, a multi-trillion dollar global industry. Current computer science systems operate on principals of binary and linear logic. While humans, on the other hand, operate on a cognitive, invisible system of individual human preference, controlling purchase behavior and product decisions. The monstrous challenge for computer and data scientists? Explicit vs. implicit human behavior, the dichotomy of computer science and human-centric abstraction. If a company is to hire a CAI Officer, culling from CTOs and CIOs, they are missing the point! If the new title of CAI is to have meaning, the role must be filled with a person who is both a strong subject matter expert in retail and an HCI technologist, so the CAI actually knows what to solve for using AI/ML! In other words, human sentiment must be involved in AI. And operator bias eliminated. If not, then why invest the money to stay on the same linear approach to… Read more »
David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
3 years 3 months ago

The benefits of AI and machine learning are potentially enormous; however, realizing those benefits depends on a commitment of time and energy to make it work. AI is not plug and play and how the results are used in decision making requires a focus and commitment to trust the machines.

Having an AI champion that helps departments incorporate AI into their processes and convincing executives to trust the process will help ensure retailers get a positive ROI from AI. The right title for this position will depend on the company, but as long as they are respected by the executive team, they should provide a positive impact on the success of AI in the organization.

W. Frank Dell II
Artificial Intelligence is not new to the Food Industry. The first food industry application was BICEPS installed in the ’80s and still operating in many retailers and wholesalers today. Any system that lasts over 30 years is different. Initial development was Case & Company and advanced by OMI. This validates the investment in AI. The rationale for this AI investment is the same as today: flood of data, shrinking available time, education costs, and employee turnover for growing companies. The CFO has been driving productive and operation improvement for years. Like all new tools AI must pay for the investment. AI applications should start to improve the internals before stepping into the externals. The CFO should be an AI campion. The CTO should be responsible for AI development. It should be considered for all new applications and systems. The CTO should have an AI director to oversee identification and implementation. An AI project is the same as any IT project. The analyst just needs to understand the job steps. Conclusion: AL management is required, but… Read more »
Lee Peterson

Hal? Hal! I jest. I don’t know, seems to me most retailers are having a hard enough time getting their merchandise and real estate portfolios in order, let alone “turning it to eleven” and taking a commanding position in AI. Unless you’re Apple, I’d say, first things first!

Kenneth Leung

Artificial Intelligence expertise is definitely needed in retail. The question is whether it is a C-Suite role. Realizing the benefits of AI means integrating the insight created into execution into the line of business using resources from IT. I think appointing the Chief AI officer should be the result of implementing change in the organization to scale the success of AI across orgs, not necessarily as an instigator of it. Appointing a chief AI officer too early may actually be detrimental to the cause.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
3 years 3 months ago

Whether it is titled a CAIO or not does not matter, however, someone needs to have ownership of championing AI across the business. Sponsored by the board, the first role has to be educating the exec on how AI could drive change and value for their parts of the business.

Multiple pieces of research show that leading companies have understanding and buy-in to technology & the value it can bring at C-level. AI is exactly the same.

Christopher P. Ramey

The term I see is “Marketing Technologist,” that technology (including AI) is every C-level executive’s responsibility.

Each retailer’s culture is unique and shifts with the expertise of the current CEO. Some companies are sales driven, some are marketing driven and some are accounting driven. In the near future, we’ll add “AI driven” to the mix.

Adriana Krasniansky

There seem to be two axes of AI involvement for any company that’s serious about its implementation:

1) The role of AI across the organization, such as its application for consumer-facing interactions, backend integrations (security, for example), or supply chain and logistics. Streamlining initiatives across these teams helps to manage AI product or vendor costs and share insights and best practices for consistency.

2) The depth of AI at each vertical, which involves the analytics pyramid mentioned in this article (foundational analytics vs. moonshots) as well as considerations such as ethics and long-term roadmap.

Whether it’s C-Level or VP-Level (likely under the CTO, as technology integration will be a chief consideration), a role that manages both perspectives stands to be highly valuable for companies serious about driving the most value with AI within their business.

"Although the vast majority of retailers and brands have not undertaken AI seriously as of today, I believe a peer to the CTO may make sense for AI."

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