Hard Value of Soft Skills Required in AI Future

Between IBM’s Watson actually coaching conference attendees at last year’s Association for Talent Development conference and being able to hold a conversation with my new virtual assistant in the living room, key aspects of our world are obviously changing as technology evolves even further.

There is even a fair amount of noise within organizations about the possibility that artificial intelligence (AI) will be able to create experiences so life-like that the need for human contribution would be rendered obsolete.

Fortunately, this is unlikely.

Think Beyond Automation
Importantly, artificial intelligence is not like the technologies we have created up to this point, as it is not just about making a specific task automated or easier to perform. It is actually independent and sustainable because of the way it can evaluate situations, act accordingly and learn from its actions—perhaps better than humans do. For the very first time we are seeing human-centred jobs such as customer service, real estate and design being given a technological alternative.

While this is going to have massive impact on our workplaces and our economy overall, there are some real opportunities for organizations to focus in on the unique human skills set through using artificial intelligence to create the time and space needed to do so.

Soft Skills and Hard Value
AI can do remarkable things with existing data—organize, mine, come up with incredibly useful insights—but it can’t create new data unless someone tells it to. Innovation, thinking up new business models and problem solving through connecting and collaborating with others are all uniquely human skills. What’s interesting about the time we live in is that our organizations are just starting to recognize that what makes us distinctively human doesn’t have a lot of economic value attached to it at the moment.

As per a recent article, “How to Be Human in an AI Future” by Dan Wellers on Forbes.com: “At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called ‘soft skills’ enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance”.1

The phrase “soft skills” should be completely eradicated from our vocabulary. Firstly, there’s nothing ‘soft’ about them, many people actually find them quite hard to develop and to use effectively. Secondly, these skills are critical to personal, professional and organizational success in any culture across the globe. The theoretical physicist Michio Kaku defines “intellectual capitalism”  as activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humour and original thought.

A Shift in Mindset and Worth
This type of thinking is going to require a massive mindset shift throughout organizations across the world. How do we start valuing skill sets that up until now have often been seen as nice-to-haves? Can you imagine a world where people who work primarily with empathy in roles such as care aids, counsellors and social workers are being valued higher and paid more than engineers and technologists in our society? Not likely to happen anytime soon.

However, what we value as a society—and what have been well-paying successful career paths up to this point—may not look the same once artificial intelligence really starts to play a widespread role inside our workplaces.

Imagination, taking initiative, adaptability, cross-functional communication, empathy, curiosity, ethics: these are all characteristics and qualities that employers need to start focusing on starting now. If we really want to prepare ourselves properly for the future we are already embarking on, it needs to start with a complete overhaul of our educational systems.

While some schools have turned to new models and are putting an emphasis on critical thinking and project work, our post-secondary institutions are stuck in a never-ending loop of high grades equating success without taking a closer look at a student’s emotional intelligence, resilience levels, or critical thinking ability.

How can we seriously still think that calculating a grade average in high school academic subjects (an age where most people’s brains aren’t even fully formed yet) is the best—or only—way to measure someone’s future capacity to learn and contribute to society in some way?

Re-evaluating Organizational Success
Our employers need to start taking a really good look at what is going to make their organization successful now and in the years to come. What skill sets to you have? Where are your gaps? How strong is your leadership and how resilient is your organization culture when it comes to creating and embracing innovation and change? Are you rewarding not just results, but effort and learning?

In a recent speech to graduating university students in Australia by the CEO of Infosys, Vishal Sikka stated “The only certain strategy in our world is for us all to become life-long learners.”2 He also talked about the fact that although AI is certainly going to be disruptive in both work and society, that we can manage that disruption, make it useful, and work with it as opposed to against it. However, this can only hold true if we are paying attention and using creativity, innovation and initiative to effectively manage it all.

In short, the message is clear. Play it safe, bury your head in the sand and get left behind—or start taking stock, figure out who you have and who you need, invest in your people, create a culture of learning and build a stronger business through being pro-active and ready for anything.

And keep in mind, all the technology in the world is only as good as how we decide to apply it to improving our world. We should all be asking ourselves what kinds of organizations—and societies—do we want to create?

Named by CEO Today magazine as one of 2018’s top 100 global management consultants,  Jennifer Gerves-Keen, master corporate executive coach, partners with organizations to create better businesses through internal coaching systems and evolving leadership. 

1 forbes.com
2 ft.com

(PeopleTalk Summer 2018)

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