It's About Making Better Decisions, Not Replacing People: Generative AI Insights from Dr. Jules White of Vanderbilt University

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Through expert-led insights from AI leader and Coursera instructor Dr. Jules White, discover the most beneficial use cases of GenAI and how to roll out company-wide learning initiatives.

by Trena Minudri

It’s rare to live through major technological advances that will be talked about for decades to come—but that’s what we’re experiencing right now with Generative AI (GenAI).

Even a computer science professor and GenAI enthusiast has to pinch himself: “If you had asked me about ChatGPT’s current capabilities two years ago, I would have told you that I don’t believe I’ll see that in my lifetime,” emphasizes Dr. Jules White, the Director of the Initiative on the Future of Learning & GenAI at Vanderbilt University. “The capabilities of GenAI are groundbreaking and game-changing.”

I recently had the privilege of collaborating with Dr. White, an early GenAI adopter, on a white paper about GenAI and productivity. Recognized as a leading authority in the field, Dr. White has authored multiple courses on Coursera, including Prompt Engineering for ChatGPT, which attracted more than 200,000 enrollments in 2023 alone.

What I’ve learned from Dr. White has made one thing abundantly clear: GenAI isn't just a learning initiative. It's a company and culture initiative that can supercharge talent and productivity—and business leaders who are responsible for training need to speak up and recommend to executives the ways they should be optimizing both talent and tech agility within their organization. 

Executives are eager to get started anyway. In 2024, 89% of them named AI or GenAI as one of their top three tech priorities for the year—and 54% expect the adoption of new AI tech to deliver cost savings within months. Dr. White's insights about GenAI, coupled with stats like these, have upended the way that I view GenAI’s ability to revolutionize business as we know it.

That’s why I’m sharing my main takeaways with the broader learning community in Coursera’s network. Here you’ll find an expert-led perspective on what GenAI is (and isn’t) from Dr. White, and walk away with several tactics for starting successful GenAI adoption at your organization.

What can GenAI do, really?

“GenAI is going to change what we spend our time on when it’s baked into the tools we use,” Dr. White shares. “It will give us the ability to spend more time thinking, interacting with other human beings, and being creative, as opposed to dealing with computing interfaces.”

The hype around GenAI is real. But to use it well, it’s critical to define GenAI and understand what it is, and what it is not.

GenAI, defined

GenAI is an aspect of artificial intelligence that leverages LLMs to create outputs—words, images, videos—in response to user-generated prompts. 

Some of the GenAI tools you might be familiar with include ChatGPT, Gemini, and GitHub Copilot.

What people think GenAI is

As organizations and the general public adopted GenAI, Dr. White noticed a negative narrative starting to dominate the conversation: “GenAI has been presented as something people use to ‘cheat.’ From there, people talked about it taking over the world and the human race, pointing out all the mistakes it makes.”

But, according to Dr. White, that’s not what GenAI is about at all. Organizations that successfully use GenAI actually experience:

  • Heightened productivity: Stanford University data found that employees using a conversational assistant tool were 14% more productive.

  • Stronger performance: Proper GenAI use can improve job performance by up to 40%.

  • Better employee retention: Four out of five desk job employees see AI’s value at work, believing it will make them more efficient (82%), more productive (81%), and able to focus on higher-value work (81%), despite their reservations.

Dr. White’s take: GenAI as “augmented intelligence”

Dr. White invites us to go beyond the base benefits of GenAI when considering what it can do for organizations. GenAI is “augmented intelligence” for our minds, a technological exoskeleton. Employees and leaders alike can solve bigger problems and flex their creative muscles—leading to a more substantial impact.

The real value of GenAI is when companies start thinking about how many business decisions we make every day. We’ve never had anything like this in computing that could help leaders make better decisions, faster.

With this in mind, it can be limiting to think of GenAI for just one use case or job discipline. Leaders need to dive into the full range of tasks and roles that GenAI could enhance to make the most of it.

Dr. White encourages organizations to prize AI for these better decisions—not as a tool to eliminate roles.

“Thinking through the ramifications of every decision and alternative approach is more valuable in the long run than automating,” he says. 

While aspects of automation have touched job functions before, this is the first time the technology has seamlessly empowered leaders to review strategies, understand the customer’s perspective, and overcome their very human biases. 

But before you bring GenAI into your organization, this is what you need to know. 

Hear how learning experts at Dow, Microsoft, and Vanderbilt University are planning for GenAI.

Watch the webinar

Three beginning steps toward GenAI adoption

It’s not enough to introduce GenAI across an organization and hope for the best. Leaders should take small, yet confident steps toward broader GenAI education. 

All learning should be tailored to the department each employee is a part of so that lessons connect directly back to practice. Even the most well-designed, comprehensive training won’t motivate your workforce unless it answers the question, ‘Why does this matter to me?’

Here’s where you can start today. (And if you’d like to keep learning, our recent white paper shares in-depth strategies for planning L&D initiatives and getting GenAI buy-in.)

1. Use a top-down and bottom-up approach

“When the C-suite makes better decisions, it affects everything throughout the organization,” he notes. “Leaders can get the most value out of using GenAI for decision-making.”

While GenAI promotes stronger decision-making, adoption will only work if leaders understand and communicate its value. The C-suite should:

  • Inspire the workforce to learn GenAI basics

  • Use large language models (LLMs) as they’re integrated into the company tech stack

  • Understand how to use these tools ethically

According to Dr. White, leaders can encourage experimentation and usage even as they stand up a more cohesive GenAI strategy and policy: “It takes time to get the legality and operability of GenAI set up, but leaders can’t wait for that to be in place before they help the workforce learn about it.” 

To complement this top-down approach, GenAI adoption needs to come from the bottom up within teams, too. A CEO likely won’t know how an HR associate could use GenAI for their daily tasks, for example. Each job function should tap an employee who is passionate about GenAI on the shoulder; as they experiment, they’ll discover how GenAI can provide value to roles within their team.

2. Start with the basics, then build

Telling an employee to use GenAI to increase productivity in their work isn’t effective. But by showing an employee useful GenAI prompts—a pattern of language made up of basic building blocks—they can relate this technology directly to their work.

“A pattern is considering how you structure your language,” he explains. “Start by considering a problem you can solve with a prompt, and architect your language to solve that problem.” 

The “persona pattern” will become critical. To understand why, think of a non-technology example of problem-solving. When we have a question, we look to the subject matter expert. A persona pattern is the digital version of this idea. An LLM prompt acts as a certain persona—and shares outputs that correspond with their needs. Ask more and more questions as this persona, and the LLM will evolve and adjust its reasoning to act like it. 

For example, a recent study of more than 5,000 customer support agents at a Fortune 500 company assessed how GenAI could improve their support chats. Real-time suggestions made it easier for these agents to respond to customers based on their unique needs, faster.

“You can solve problems by knowing if you need to analyze something from a particular perspective,” he shares. “Who is the expert, and how can you express their persona to the LLM to get the output you need?”

3. Get people using GenAI (instead of just talking about it) 

Generative AI is top conversation fodder these days. But it’s much harder to get people to use it vs. stand on the sidelines and discuss it.

“We need everybody to just start interacting with LLMs. We don’t need to teach them deep theory or obscure information,” Dr. White shares. 

To get your employees to use GenAI, share concrete, relevant use cases for their role and present them with opportunities to learn more. Then ask them to experiment with prompts that are relevant to their interests, so they decrease their hesitation before applying it to their work.

How to start setting up GenAI training

77% of companies have adopted GenAI—yet most of them don’t really know what to use AI for. 

What this tells us is that GenAI training needs tangible outcomes, incentives, and modalities that are tailored to different learners.

As a leader overseeing GenAI transformation at Vanderbilt University and speaking to pioneers in the field, here’s Dr. White’s advice: 

Start by teaching the most basic prompt engineering

A lot of people claim to be GenAI training experts, yet they teach extremely complicated lessons, per Dr. White: “Your workforce needs simple instruction—like getting in front of an LLM for basic prompt engineering.”

Above all, leaders and early adopters alike need to prioritize using GenAI technology effectively and safely. Practice with basic GenAI use cases that help individuals review data or identify their assumptions—like Dr. White’s example for Vanderbilt Medical Center. 

“We’re not going to let someone ask an LLM, ‘What’s my blood pressure?’ because there’s a lot of risk. On the other hand, you could allow somebody to type, ‘What’s my blood pressure?’ and train the LLM to navigate you to the app containing this information. People need to start thinking through problems while structuring mistake-friendly training.”

This practice ground helps employees consider how they can use the tool appropriately moving forward. 

Keep metrics simple

When my colleagues surveyed L&D leaders in 2023, 58% shared that having too many initiatives to measure was their top barrier to meaningfully assessing their learning programs.

Thankfully, measuring the early adoption of GenAI is simple. Start by surveying your employees regularly to learn how often they log in and use GenAI tools. From there, you can work backward by deciding on the business outcome you want to achieve with the incorporation of GenAI, and set goals and KPIs that will lead to the accomplishment of that outcome.

If your workforce isn’t using GenAI regularly, you probably haven’t effectively trained them on it because they don’t know what to do, how to use it, or how to make it valuable to them.

If you’re looking to measure productivity, remember this: There are many different ways to be productive. Dr. White recommends that employees who are new to GenAI start by generating a draft for an email or presentation to get started. If this is successful, employees will get creative and come up with other prompts to create even more materials. 

“GenAI allows people to generate a starting draft to get them moving; you can iterate to the next draft even faster. The goal is to produce drafts that get you 80% of the way there, faster. Productivity measurement is that boost from zero to 80%.”

Prioritize training and recruiting GenAI-ready talent

While GenAI might feel intimidating at first, 68% of workers understand the importance of reskilling. They’re aware that their role will be impacted and they need to commit to training to successfully use GenAI.

GenAI’s value is available to your organization right here, right now. People who know how to solve problems using GenAI don’t have to be data scientists—they need to be creative, strategic thinkers. And they just need to learn how to use GenAI for their individual roles.

When recruiting new talent, Dr. White thinks companies should prize candidates’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills over their educational background.

“Right now, companies are looking for people with certain credentials. You have to rethink which candidates could be successful using GenAI and how they’re going to solve problems.”

GenAI is a golden opportunity, not a threat

Dr. White believes AI tools are going to change everything. The initial hype we saw in 2022 is only the beginning.

This new technological advancement will empower employees to handle sophisticated tasks, make stronger decisions, and challenge their assumptions—and nothing like this has existed before.

We have this whole new world of artistic expression as people discover GenAI. We’re just beginning to see all the interesting things people can do. That’s what gets me excited—what amazing things are humans going to think up with this new medium?

In the coming years, GenAI will be an essential skill, much like math or writing. It’s going to be vital knowledge across every single discipline—and this leaves business leaders with a major opportunity.

Learn more about how you can use GenAI to boost productivity throughout your organization and design impactful training in one of three ways:

  1. Browse our recent white paper, Unlocking Productivity: The Business Leader’s Playbook to Generative AI Skills Training, featuring Dr. White, a senior AI leader at Microsoft, and some lessons I've learned from managing the GenAI training initiative at Coursera.

  2. Watch Dr. Jules White speak alongside learning experts from Dow and Microsoft in the upcoming Bridging the Generative AI Talent Gap webinar.

  3. Start learning today with Coursera’s Generative AI Academy. It includes more than 35+ courses that’ll introduce employees across disciplines to the possibilities of GenAI in their role.

Learn how to increase productivity with generative AI skills training.

Get playbook

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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