Futurists predict we’re facing workplace changes as large as those of the Industrial Revolution, with rampant automation expected. But some skills aren’t good candidates for automation. What will help you—and those you’re tasked with developing—survive?
I’m as big a Hollywood fan as the next person. But I know as well as you that movies aren’t always realistic. Take robots. On the big screen they can be funny, sensitive, even romantic. We embrace the fantastical in films ranging from “Star Wars,” the 1970s blockbuster that made us fall in love with C-3PO and R2-D2, to the 2013 Oscar-nominated “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his new operating system. (OK, it was voiced over by Scarlett Johansson, but still.)
Recent reports from leading publications seem to cast robots as a future employee base. These articles highlight predictions of economists and futurists who warn that we’re facing changes we haven’t seen in nearly 200 years. The Second Machine Age, the 2014 book by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, has grabbed attention for its prophesies of increasingly sophisticated computerization, artificial intelligence, and automation.
It’s gone so far that, believe it or not, Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Deep Knowledge Ventures has named an artificial intelligence program to its board of directors with equal voting right to other board members.
Human beings being human
Yet as much as technology and automation have streamlined operations—and downsized workforces—there has also been a lot of talk about the very human traits machines will never replace.
A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School revealed that 47 percent of current U.S. jobs may be automated within 20 years. Yet some skills are inherently difficult to automate. Analyzing automation risks for 702 occupations, the study predicted three types of computerization-resistant jobs that involve these skills:
- Complex perception and manipulation—These are skills that are performed in an unstructured work environment, involve handling irregular objects, or require tactile feedback. A surgeon is a good example of a role that involves these tasks.
- Creative intelligence—Creativity involves both novelty and value, which are challenging for a computer, because both vary by culture and over time. Examples include fashion designers and biological scientists.
- Social intelligence—Social intelligence is fundamental to professions involving negotiation, persuasion, leadership, or high-touch care. Examples are public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists, and CEOs.
Roles for mere mortals
What are the implications for today’s workforce? For yourself, unless retirement is imminent, look for ways to computer-proof your skill set. If you manage or develop others, help them plan ahead.
Applicable to all of us is the need for social intelligence. Despite the lip service paid to Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence (or what Howard Gardner would call interpersonal intelligence), companies do little to develop these skills in their people. Fortunately for you and those in your charge, a quick Internet search will lead you to an abundance of free online courses to bulk up your robot offensive in this arena.
But can people be taught to be creative? It’s a matter of some debate, but companies are taking up the charge, with “creativity” taking various forms. The Oxford Martin School researchers cite the definition of Sussex University cognitive-science expert Margaret Boden: “Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising, and valuable.” Boden’s examples of ideas range from poems to scientific theories, while artefacts include sculptures and steam engines.
With creativity so broadly defined, it’s actually not such a stretch to find examples. One is a continuous-improvement course I heard about from a colleague at a national retail chain. They’re using a blend of lean process improvement and Six Sigma to drive creative problem solving. Learners take on a critical improvement project in their area of responsibility, getting one-on-one coaching from a mentor in addition to classroom sessions. Documented savings from class-driven projects run in the millions of dollars. That’s a great way to benefit the company while skilling up employees for the future.
In the same vein, “action learning projects” are trendy these days: assigning groups of learners—often executives—specific, current business challenges to solve as part of a larger training course. These projects are designed to cultivate the ability to come up with ideas that are “new, surprising, and valuable.”
Another example is ?What If! Innovation Partners, a consulting firm that helps companies innovate, both around specific initiatives and by building more innovative corporate cultures. They’ve created an innovation curriculum to develop that most human of skill sets.
So, while robots will keep taking away jobs, we can start now to protect ours and those of the future workforce. In the process, we can find new ways to unlock our human potential.
This blog was originally posted on SAP Business Innovation and forbes.com