Frontline Employees in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI

by | May 17, 2022 | Customer Service

The May-June 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review published twin articles on frontline employees being trained in using data directly with customers.  Both emphasized the importance of putting data in the hands of workers and how this is done.  The first article, Democratizing Transformation, written by Marco Iansiti,[1] Harvard business school professor, and Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, explains the need to “give your entire workforce the capacity to become innovators.” The second article, Developing a Digital Mindset, written by TSedal Neeley[2] (Harvard Business school) and Paul Leonardi (UC, Santa Barbara), outlines “How to lead your organization into the age of data, algorithms, and AI.”)

Article one, Democratizing Transformation, features Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant and “poster child” of transformation. Despite setbacks, they learned by struggles to push forward to success.

They realized that technologists and data scientists alone couldn’t bring about the kind of wholesale innovation the business needed, so they began pairing data scientists with business employees who had insight into where improvements in efficiency and performance were needed. Novartis also invested in training frontline business employees to use data themselves to drive innovation. … But to build companywide digital capability, under the leadership of then chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson, Novartis not only developed new capabilities in data science but also started to democratize access to data and technology well outside traditional tech silos.

This process covered a five-step developmental engagement:

  • Traditional: IT department of silos, business units, and operations without connectivity and consistency
  • Bridge model: Agile teams launched as pilots to bridge groups and develop shareable data and technology
  • Hubs: Pushing pilots to new approaches of data capability in pursuit of innovative transformation
  • Platform model: merging into comprehensive software deploying AI-based applications to integrate ML
  • Native model: “The real thing” – easy-to-use tools to train the frontline workforce to use data to grow.

All this was made possible by the company creating synergy in three areas:

  • Capability: develop agile digital and data skills in the workforce outside traditional technology functions
  • Technology: the right technology of an AI stack: data platform, data engineering, ML algorithms
  • Architecture: human capabilities and technology in the workforce to drive innovation

The bottom line: “Digital transformation requires that executives, managers, and frontline employees work together to rethink how every aspect of the business should operate.” This article is a MUST-read.

Our second article, Developing a Digital Mindset, goes to the heart of opening the “black box” of data mining to enable the frontline workforce to have a “hands-on” capacity to use data in their daily business.

Learning new technological skills is essential for digital transformation. But it is not enough. Employees must be motivated to use their skills to create new opportunities. They need a digital mindset: a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable people and organizations to see how data, algorithms, and AI open new possibilities and chart a path for success in an increasingly technology-intensive world.

The authors define the digital mindset as –

… a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable people and organizations to see how data, algorithms, and AI open new possibilities and chart a path for success in a business landscape increasingly dominated by data-intensive and intelligent technologies.

This focus is aimed at two areas: 1) a new and continuous digital organizational and learning culture that helps both new and old employees to attain superior performance for successful digital transformation, and 2) designing and aligning systems and processes, whereby employees will use digital tools to build technology ecosystems and processes that foster a digital mindset in digital transformations.

Take-away:A digital mindset equips employees to be dynamic in our constantly changing world.


[1] Iansit, Marco, & Nadella, Satya, (2022); Democratizing Transformation,

[2] Neeley, Tsedal &Leonardi, Paul (2022); Developing a Digital Mindset,