The Marketing Science Institute has named Sydney E. Scott, Olin assistant professor of marketing, a Young Scholar.
Every two years, a committee selects a class. This year, 33 early career researchers were chosen.
MSI’s Young Scholars program brings together a small number of promising scholars in marketing and closely related fields “whose work suggests they are potential leaders of the ‘next generation’ of marketing academics,” according to MSI’s website.
The scholars will convene January 2-5, 2024, near Snowbird,Utah. The meeting is for them to explore research opportunities and to encourage research collaborations.
Scott studies consumer psychology, which is how consumers think and make decisions. Much of her research focuses on topics relevant to marketing practitioners and the Marketing Science Institute.
“I examine when and why consumers want ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products, and, on the flip side, how consumers think about unnatural technological innovations like genetic engineering,” said Scott, who joined Olin’s faculty in September 2017. Her research helps to predict and explain how marketers and policymakers can communicate with consumers about health, nature and technology.
“I am very flattered to receive this recognition,” she said.
“I feel tremendously grateful and fortunate to have a career where I get to research interesting topics every day. I consider myself especially lucky to be in Olin’s supportive research environment, which includes colleagues who are generous with their time and feedback, talented and enthusiastic students, and an administration who is very supportive of our research.”
Artificial intelligence already is having a seismic effect on business communications, thanks to the availability of ChatGPT and other AI tools. So, time is of the essence in getting MBA students up to speed on the potential—and the challenges—posed by this rapidly evolving technology.
Enter Generative AI for Communicators, a six-week course offered as part of WashU Olin’s Online MBA curriculum. Staci Thomas, professor of practice in management communications, said she developed the class to explain underlying models that direct AI tools, as well as how they are used in business communications.
“We wanted to take a realistic approach to the course and tell students how these models work,” Thomas said. “They need to understand the flaws and the biases while also understanding the potential.”
To prepare to launch the class, Thomas took several courses in AI, but she doesn’t see herself as an expert. “Rather than saying I know everything, I act as a facilitator and collaborate with people to create a course that covers all the different angles.”
She brings in experts in the use of generative AI in business communications, including industry professionals who already use it. Thomas worked with Olin Professor Salih Tutun, an AI expert, on the technical content and Seth Carnahan, an associate professor of strategy, on ethical issues related to AI.
“There’s an ethics element to every module,” Thomas said. “AI is rife with ethical issues.” She noted that the data set on which the models are based can be pulled from a variety of sources of varying quality. “So it’s pulling both from academic journals and from, say, Reddit.” The models can also mimic the biases of the humans who train them.
Despite these challenges, Thomas said the technology is already a vital business tool.
“I believe we have to embrace it,” she said. “As we talk to business professionals, they’re using it every day. We’re doing our students a disservice if we don’t show them how to use it well.”
An AI-powered assistant: Meet Synthia
To help illustrate the potential uses of AI technology, Thomas worked with the team at Olin’s Center for Digital Education, which provides e-learning support for the OMBA program, to craft a special virtual environment for the course.
AI was used to create background images and even a robot “teaching assistant” named Synthia.
“The robot was animated so that it could move and interact with Staci on the video,” said Jorge Delgado, a video production specialist with the CDE.
The script for Synthia’s dialogue was created in ChatGPT. Verity Woody, a multimedia developer at the CDE, said they used an AI tool called Speechify to convert the text to audio and design Synthia’s voice.
“You can make the voice as robotic or humanlike as you want,” she said. “I wanted to make it sound like she was a robot, but not a ‘beep-boop’ metallic-sounding robot.”
Despite the significant use of AI, Thomas said the team’s creative input was vital.
“We say we built it using AI, but it took humans to actually do it,” she said. “We talked about context, history, the understanding of the program and the students. There were critical questions these guys asked me throughout the development to make it work. It was undeniably a team effort.”
Those conversations allowed Delgado and Woody to work with AI tools while also considering their impact.
Woody said she sees the utility of AI. But she worries about the impact on human artists whose work could be appropriated without compensation or credit. “Like a lot of things, it can be used for good or for not-so-good things,” she said. “I hope we get regulations (to protect artists), but I think there can be a harmonious relationship with AI.”
Since AI technology is already so widely available, Delgado said professionals need to adapt to using it, while ensuring they’re doing so ethically.
“One interviewee (in the course) said something that really stuck with me: ‘It’s not that AI is going to take your job; it’s the people who can utilize AI to its full capacity who are going to take your job.’ It’s out there. If you don’t use it, you’re missing out on opportunities,” he said.
As AI continues to evolve and impact the business world, Thomas sees the potential to incorporate it into future courses. “I don’t think this should be the only course we have on AI—it’s a starter course. We’re putting a stake in the ground with this.”
AI tools used to create the Generative AI for Communicators course:
ChatGPT 3.5 & 4 (with plugins) and Google Bard
language-processing chatbots that can generate humanlike text.
an AI-powered search engine and chatbot
a program that creates images from natural language descriptions
an AI voice studio that translates text into voice files
Pictured: Staci Thomas, professor of practice in management communications, and Synthia.
Since its launch in November 2022, numerous authorities have raised concerns about the risks posed by OpenAI’s ChatGPT technology. In March, Italy’s Data Protection Agency took the extraordinary step of banning ChatGPT within the country over concerns about consent and personal data privacy.
Ironically, this one-month ban may have provided the strongest evidence to date of the technology’s transformative impact on business and the economy.
Capitalizing on this rare natural experiment opportunity, researchers at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and the National University of Singapore examined changes in the relative stock market valuation of Italian firms across multiple industries during the one-month ban to assess the ban’s consequences and generative AI’s overall value.
“Not since the introduction of the internet has a technology so quickly transformed how businesses operate and compete. What’s remarkable is that it’s easy and cheap to adopt, helping small, underdog businesses compete with much larger firms without making heavy investments in infrastructure or human capital,” said Jeremy Bertomeu, an associate professor of accounting at Olin Business School.
Measuring ban’s impact on businesses
Across the globe, businesses have leveraged AI generative technology to optimize processes that previously required significant labor and infrastructure support. Not surprisingly, the researchers found early adopters — including firms that provide professional, scientific and technological services — were hardest hit by Italy’s temporary ban.
According to the data, Italian firms in these high-exposure industries experienced an average negative return of 8.7% compared with similar European stocks during the monthlong ban.
They also found evidence that the ban had a greater impact on newer and small Italian businesses. Compared with larger, more established Italian businesses, these firms underperformed by 6.8-7.1%, respectively.
“The negative market reaction indicates that new, small and tech-savvy businesses benefit the most from generative AI because it allows them to reduce the information advantages held by larger incumbent firms and narrow the competitive gap.”
How the ban impacted investors, businesses’ bottom line
Because the goal of the research was to understand the capital market consequences of the ban, it was also important to assess how the ban influenced investor behavior.
“ChatGPT transforms the investment landscape by providing investors, especially small investors, with a conversational and interactive platform to gather insights and navigate the complexities of the financial market,” Bertomeu said.
The research showed that the loss of this investment tool led to an increase in information asymmetry during the ban. The effect was greatest for firms with fewer institutional investors, limited analyst coverage and a lower presence of foreign investors — which would still have access to AI technology during Italy’s ban.
As a result of this information asymmetry, bid-ask spreads — the difference between the highest price a buyer will offer and the lowest price a seller will accept — widened during the ban and firms suffered decreased liquidity.
“In the EU, it is unlikely that other countries will follow suit with a ban, but regulators in France, Germany, Spain, among others, met to discuss whether AI complies with EU privacy laws, and this could lead to future restrictions on the technology,” Bertomeu said.
A cautionary tale
In the short time since its launch, generative AI technology like ChatGPT has revolutionized businesses worldwide, providing a powerful tool for innovation and creation. Its influence on businesses worldwide will only continue to grow.
‘Regulatory policy should always be based on careful cost-benefit analyses and public input. Our data demonstrate what can go wrong when regulators skip these fundamental steps.’
Yet, simultaneously, governments worldwide are grappling with potential security threats and ethical concerns related to technology. Bertomeu hopes the early evidence presented in this case study will offer a cautionary example of the potential consequences of regulating AI.
“No one asked the Italian regulatory agency to ban ChatGPT, but they did it anyway without any consultation of affected parties or elected officials,” Bertomeu said. “Regulatory policy should always be based on careful cost-benefit analyses and public input. Our data demonstrate what can go wrong when regulators skip these fundamental steps.”
Bertomeu’s co-authors include Yibin Liu, Yupeng Lin and Zhenghui Ni, all from the National University of Singapore.
Rik Nemanick, an adjunct lecturer in organizational behavior at Olin, poses this scenario in a new Harvard Business Review article:
You’re 15 months into your first job out of college when a senior leader from human resources asks to meet with you. About mentoring … him.
At the meeting, he says he wants to improve your firm’s recruiting practices: “I think you could teach me about what young professionals are expecting these days. I’d love it if you and I could meet over the next few months, and you could ‘mentor’ me on what to do.”
How do you respond?
“Reverse mentorships can be incredibly valuable,” Nemanick said. They promote diversity, help bridge generational gaps and can help you hone your leadership skills.
But they also create dynamics that can pose hurdles and potential risks for the junior employee.
In traditional mentoring, the mentor holds a more senior position and uses their wisdom to guide a junior colleague. When the roles are swapped, it’s called “reverse mentoring,” and it takes work.
“Being a reverse mentor can feel intimidating, especially if you’re new to the workplace,” writes Nemanick, who is the author of the book “The Mentor’s Way.” That book is the culmination of more than 20 years of mentoring training and consulting.