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In the age of automation, our humanity will be the differentiator

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Here’s a dirty little secret: many corporations are scared their employees don’t have the skills needed to compete in the digital world. Several of them are investing in massive reskilling efforts and turning over large chunks of their workforce. If you get into whisper range, you may hear CEOs admit they need to upskill or replace over fifty percent of their employees. If you prefer to read, you may see people predicting that super-intelligent computers will eliminate a massive number of jobs.

The fact is, automation is eliminating jobs; but likely not the ones you think.  It will eliminate jobs where computers outperform humans. These are jobs where computation, correlation and analysis are critical1. That presents a harsh reality to the business analyst that spends days crunching numbers, or the translator or cashier.  These are jobs where computers have an advantage over people – they can do it faster, cheaper and better.

However, computers will not replace humans in all jobs. Rather, new jobs will be created – and the impact of automation will force people to think about what new skill sets are required to lead in this new environment. In other words, social and emotional skills will be in high demand.  

The advantage of being a “people person”

people engaged in a collaborative discussion during a meeting

There is a delicious irony in this; the more our world is automated, the more being human will matter. According to Jonathan Rezek of IBM, “Soft skills will be the differentiator going forward.”  

Soft skills are the ones that allow leaders to motivate people, build trust, collaborate, make decisions, communicate ideas and build support for them. McKinsey predicts demand for social and emotional skills such as leadership and managing others will rise by 24 percent by 2030 – and we’ll use those skills in 22 percent of hours we work.  

The business case for improving soft skills is a no brainer.  Most managers spend 85 percent or more of their work time on emails, in meetings, and on the phone. And the demand for such activities has jumped by 50 percent over the past decade. The scary part is when you ask people how much of that time is efficient, most report a large percentage of their meetings and emails are a waste of time.  People feel more bogged down with nonsense than ever before. If you are someone that spends 85 percent of your time collaborating with others and you’ll be asked to do it more often, you have to get better at it. It will cost too much to continue in the same way.

The turning of the tide

a group of people collaborating on a project in an office

In spite of the math, many people don’t pay enough attention to soft skill development.  According to Bouzha Cookman, an executive coach and Hermann Brain Dominance Index advocate, most C-suites are filled with people with a strong ability to analyze problems and innovate. These skills are recognized and valued in leadership development programs. We see much less value placed on relational skills. That’s about to turn on its head.

“The ability to work with other people is by far the best skill to have for maintaining your career over your lifetime,” says MIT professor, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland. In a survey of American organizations, social skills were ranked highest in job mobility, while knowledge and technical skills were ranked lowest. 

Alex “Sandy” Pentland presents his research as part of Nokia Bell Labs’ Shannon Luminary lecture series. 

The people and teams that will thrive in the age of automation, will be the ones with the fastest soft skill ramp.  Soft skills will be what allows organizations to move with speed – and in this environment, speed matters.  

For some reason, people understand when we apply that logic to technology development curves. Companies want to be first to market with their products. We’ve become used to Moore’s Law, expecting to double the number of transistors in a chip every eighteen months. We’ve witnessed an exponential growth of computing power over the last 40 years.  To the point where we are operating an unpredicted pace – that will never get slower.

Eric Astro’ Teller, CEO of Google X research center says, “Our societal structures are failing to keep pace with the rate of change… We can either push back against technological advances or we can acknowledge that humanity has a new challenge: we must rewire our societal tools and institutions so that they will enable us to keep pace.” 2

With a pace that’s exponential, it’s a big challenge – one we cannot be casual about. Over a series of blogs, I will explore how people and organizations can go on their own soft skill hyper-growth curve.  We’ll look at how impressive people and teams have cut down on nonsense conversations, emails, and collaborations and get more work done; examine how companies are using virtual reality, computational sociolinguistics and applications like Tinder to augment learning. We’ll bring you in on the dirty little secret and how to make this shift work in your favor.

Further reading

  1. AI researcher Hans Moravec first outlined his paradox in the 1980s.  He predicted humans will continue to outperform computers at social and physical jobs while computers will increasingly take on high-level reasoning and data correlation and analysis.
  2. Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations


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