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When artificial intelligence puts the question of meaning to loan consultants

How does it affect employees when they are no longer able to make important decisions in their work themselves, but have to leave them to a decision-substitutive AI system instead? Researchers at the Universities of Passau and Bayreuth have been looking into this question – taking the loan consulting process as an example. With video-clip

Increasingly, artificial intelligence systems are in a position to make decisions autonomously without the need for any human input. This affects all business sectors, including finance. A research team from the Universities of Passau and Bayreuth has been looking into how loan consultants react when they have to surrender their decision-making power to a decision-substitutive AI system. 

One example is the process of loan consulting. Prior to the introduction of the AI system, the consultant had a wide range of competence here: he or she would decide whether a loan would be granted and if so on what terms. The introduction of the AI system fundamentally changes this situation. The consultant now only enters the customer’s data into the AI system and then the system decides on loan approval and related terms and conditions. The loan consultant cannot alter or reject the decision made by the system. Nevertheless, he or she has to communicate that decision to the customer plausibly and justify it.

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"Our study shows that it is not only the work processes that are undergoing a radical change, but also the employees' professional role identity is significantly affected", says Anne-Sophie Mayer, junior researcher at the Chair of Management, People and Information at the University of Passau. Exactly how is a question she has been examining together with the psychologists Dr. Franz Strich and Professor Marina Fiedler. “From January to December 2019, we conducted qualitative interviews with 60 loan consultants. We aimed to find out how employees redefine themselves when meaningful core areas of their work are taken over by substitutive AI systems”, explains Dr. Strich, research associate at the University of Bayreuth.

"I myself, all on my own, was able to decide on one million euros.” That's how you defined yourself as a loan consultant. You have to understand the psychological importance of this, because then a day came on which the bank decided from that day forward, the loan decisions would be made by this machine. … Well, it was dramatic for the employees, giving rise to a logical question: “What is actually the sense of my being here?"

Excerpt from an interview with a former CEO in the banking sector

Anne-Sophie Mayer reports that they were able to identify reactions by two different groups. On the one hand, there were the consultants who felt threatened in their role identity by the AI system. She said that these were employees with many years of professional experience and expertise. They felt challenged and devalued by the system and tried to protect their identity. The other group, by contrast, felt strengthened in their professional role identity. This group included consultants who had entered the business only recently or previously worked in other departments. They perceived the AI system as a chance of being able to work full-time in loan consulting.

Professor Fiedler sums up by saying that the study has illustrated the potentials and hazards of introducing an AI system. 'For many organisations, there is a risk that they will rob employees of their potential for influence by introducing such a system. Yet that potential is one of the most fundamental human needs. Organisations should take care to ensure that their employees can still find a meaningful answer to the question "Who am I at my place of work?" ', she says. So organisations can't just introduce an AI system of that kind and hope that their employees will make the best of it. They should give some thought in advance to the answers that they will be able to offer their employees if the latter ask them questions about their vocational identity.

The study, entitled "What Do I Do in a World of Artificial Intelligence? Investigating the Impact of Substitutive Decision-Making AI Systems on Employees' Professional Role Identity", appeared in the reputable specialist publication Journal of the Association for Information Systems.

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