Is an intelligent robot capable of taking over your job? New research implies the answer is probably yes — if not now, then very soon. Fortune magazine recently stated that “technological unemployment” is a significant factor in the rising number of working-age men who are without jobs.
Geoff Colvin’s recent book, Humans Are Underrated, observes that robots, augmented by AI, continue to take over repetitive tasks in the workplace, many of which used to be considered beyond the capability of technology. These tasks include translating written languages, loading and unloading a dishwasher, making hamburgers, and analyzing thousands of documents during the discovery phase of a lawsuit. Additional tasks will be possible in the coming years. When the Daimler self-driving semi-trailer truck becomes operational, it could displace 2.9 million jobs in the U.S. alone. Similarly, as Siri, Google Now and other virtual digital assistants become more commonplace, 3 million administrative assistants’ jobs will also be at risk.
Colvin recommends that instead of asking what it is that technology inherently cannot do, we ask what it is that humans must do. He believes that the most valuable employees have empathy coupled with collaboration, storytelling and team problem-solving. These skills will become even more important as jobs increase in healthcare, teaching, entertainment, leisure and other industries benefiting from human interaction.
Since World War II, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have been emphasized in U.S. education, with high schools and colleges correspondingly placing less emphasis on writing, history, music and other liberal arts. The left-brain thinking that predominates in STEM studies has prepared blue-, pink- and white-collar workers to complete tasks efficiently. But that focus has meant that people skills and effective communication have received less attention.
That matters, because in the future, enterprises’ demand for people who have only deep, department-specific skills will decline sharply, and virtually every employee will be expected to be able to build rapport, gain trust and solve problems collaboratively. That means that IT leaders will have to change how they train and recruit staff. To staff IT effectively for the future, IT leaders will need to do the following:
- Train staff to have empathy and other soft skills. Empathy can be taught, since it “is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait,” according to Mohammadreza Hojat, a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. MindTools and Empathy Training are among the companies that try to help professionals learn to understand what another person is feeling and to convey their willingness to help. Unsurprisingly, the medical field has led the way into empathy training, with several medical centers creating programs to teach physicians empathy. They assert that increased empathy improves patient outcomes, lowers the risk of physician burnout and reduces the number of malpractice lawsuits. Similarly, IT staff with empathy are patient with users who are struggling with new technology, thus easing the learning process and helping improve IT’s image.
- Engage an executive coach for IT. Executive coaches are similar to sports coaches; they help clients identify and address personal weaknesses. Some people need help presenting to the board, speaking to the press or interacting with customers. Others, particularly those who have built their careers on deep technical skills, need help relating to colleagues, especially ones without technical backgrounds. Executive coaches have been able to teach even the most severely left-brained techies how to make small talk, the importance of looking directly at the person they are talking to and the social benefits of asking about a colleague’s family. Such acquired skills help build trust and improve the quality of both personal interactions and professional relationships.
- Be specific about soft skill expectations. Those expectations will need to be included in job descriptions and performance reviews, at all levels. Most job descriptions today focus solely on technical or managerial skills. They may contain a few phrases about communication skills or working with people, but few include criteria such as the abilities to build consensus, inspire people, maintain social sensitivity and build relationships. While people skills are harder to measure than technical skills, appropriate definitions should be woven into virtually all performance goals.
- Include liberal arts graduates in IT staff. STEM graduates are trained to address problems with logic and reason, using the scientific method. This discipline continues to drive advances in IT, medicine, robotics and other fields and has certainly been very important to many careers, including my own. But we are experiencing an explosion of new technologies and new knowledge that makes it virtually impossible for a person to stay current in any field. This creates a great deal of ambiguity and often results in more than one right answer for any decision — situations that liberal arts majors are more comfortable with. Liberal arts programs train students to consider decisions from multiple points of view and to be more comfortable with nuance and subjectivity. Liberal arts graduates can help make IT more accessible to the rest of the enterprise by balancing STEM rigor with more holistic thinking and a human-based perspective.
In 2003, Warren Bennis stated, “No job is safe. Never will be. The half-life of any particular skill set is, at most, five years. And that’s on the long side.” He was correct. Machines are taking over task-centered activities one by one. Simultaneously, people with effective interpersonal communications and social interactions are becoming significantly more important and more highly valued. And their jobs will be safe for a lot longer.
Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.