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Rakuten’s commitment to artificial intelligence (AI) starts at the top. CEO Hiroshi Mikitani is determined to give the affiliate marketing giant a leading edge in emerging tech and has created a partnership with OpenAI to develop tailored AI solutions.

Debra Bonomi, head of learning and development (L&D) at Rakuten, told ZDNET how this relationship pays dividends. Rakuten has worked with OpenAI to develop a private implementation of ChatGPT for staff across the business, much to the delight of the company’s CEO.

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“He’s communicating to every business within Rakuten that AI will invert everything,” she said. “He’s focused on changing our mindset — this technology will change our organization. AI will change what we focus on, how we focus on it, and our job descriptions.”

Having a CEO who sees the potential power of emerging technology is an important starting point. However, reaping the benefits of AI depends on employees embracing the tools. So what’s the best way to help staff — who might be fearful of generative AI’s impact — to use the tech to boost productivity?

That’s where Bonomi comes in. As head of L&D, she was tasked with creating a framework to help 800 people in her department embrace and exploit AI. She worked with Utah-based ELB Learning and created a three-stage program — foundations, certifications, and tasks. The program’s success means it’s spread beyond the confines of L&D.

“I scheduled a meeting with ELB and their team walked me through their framework,” she said. “It was the most comprehensive program I’d seen. We now have all these other leaders looking to join in and wanting to roll out certification company-wide. I’m working with leaders in various countries to push this program out across the organization.”

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Bonomi explained how the three-stage training process helps people across Rakuten to upskill in AI.

Stage 1: Foundations

While it’s easy for people to believe everyone is aware of generative AI, Bonomi says the reality is different. Many people need to be taught the basics.

What is AI? What are the types of AI? How does a large language model work? What’s the difference between ChatGPT and other tools? We covered all the things to level-set everyone.”

Bonomi’s foundation training for her L&D team began in late 2023. Stage one helped staff appreciate the opportunities AI brings and the risks in ethics and security.

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Before the program started, 78% of employees felt uncomfortable using AI. Today, 86% of staff feel comfortable applying prompt-engineering skills. Bonomi describes the AI education process as a “journey.”

“Just last week, I had an all-hands meeting, and I created a slide to show how organizations have been built historically — they’ve been built for survival,” she said. 

“But with AI, we’re inverting that approach. Businesses will be built for growth and sustainability, and we must think about what that shift means and how tasks will change.”

Stage 2: Certifications

With the foundations to help people understand AI, some employees are building on this platform and moving to stage two.

Bonomi took ELB’s three-hour prompt-engineering workshop and broke it into three one-hour sessions focused on the following areas: using ChatGPT and prompt engineering, bringing multiple layers into conversations with an agent, and applying the technology to case study tasks. 

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She then ran one-hour labs with ELB to hone staff knowledge.

“Anyone who came to training could come to a lab,” she said. “People could just come in and ask ELB anything in these labs. People used their knowledge and learned from each other. It was great. Then we shared those learnings across the company, so people who didn’t attend the workshops could still learn.”

The workshops and labs are bolstered through certification: “The second level is about training and developing the skills you need to use AI tools. We’re establishing certifications to show people have acquired knowledge.”

Stage 3: Tasks

Bonomi said she expects people to start entering stage three this year. At this final level, the people who have been trained and certified will move on to task-specific use cases.

“They’re going to identify a test by building agents within ChatGPT that directly impact their business or the company, and there’ll be capstone projects,” she said. 

“But this stage won’t be just made up of capstone projects. It’ll be, ‘Create a strategic roadmap for your business unit and that type of thing.'”

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Bonomi said it’s at this third level that Rakuten will expose and explore potential role changes due to the introduction of AI.

“This stage is all about saying, ‘OK, now you know how to use ChatGPT and leverage it. How will you start embedding the technology into the organization and your role?’ At that point, we’ll work with HR reps to help us with the process.”

Taking AI to the next level

Bonomi wants to keep finding new ways to expand the program. Rather than focussing on ChatGPT in isolation, the aim is to ensure Rakuten employees are confident using all forms of AI.

“As we roll out these workshops and training — and I have conversations or support sessions with teams, and I start to see what’s holding people back and the additional training they need — the more I see that the sky is no longer the limit,” she said.  

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“No one is fully aware of what other AI upgrades are coming. My long-term strategy is to continue to reach out to ELB as all these ideas appear.”

Bonomi said Rakuten is beginning to see how employees can use generative AI as a personal assistant to help boost productivity. It’s something she sees in her role, too.

“All those things I hated doing, I can’t wait to have AI do them for me so that I can spend more time on the creative areas, strategy, and collaboration.”

Her advice for other business leaders who want to boost their company’s AI skills is to create a training program.

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“Jump on AI now. Learn while the rest of us learn, so you’re not left behind and can be part of growing AI. In the all-hands meeting I mentioned earlier, I ended that session with a quote from my teams, ‘Imagine what it’s like not to try to predict the future but instead be a part of creating the future,” she said.

“That’s what AI is doing for us. All those things that you’d wanted to do to your organization to make it more efficient and cohesive and collaborative, AI is the vehicle that can make those changes happen.”

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