office workers at table
August 10, 2022

“The robots are going to replace us.”

You have likely heard this sentiment many times. The weekend before the pandemic broke, I heard this phrase from the Uber driver who was, ironically, driving me to an in-person conference on artificial intelligence (AI) that I was speaking at in Toronto. At the time, I was Associate Director of the world’s first business and AI program at one of the top business schools in Canada. As part of my role, I worked extensively with corporate partners who recruited from the school. Through my work, I began to see a very different and nuanced perspective of the modern workforce emerging than what my Uber driver and the popular discourse were often describing.

In an era of increasingly rapid advancements in technology and the rise of virtual work, a few surprising trends have revealed themselves. Among the emerging trends are the pace of innovation and the resulting necessity for upgrading technical skills more often, as well as the emergence of an understanding of the need for soft skills. This article explores the relationship that will continue to develop between emerging technologies and people as we move into the next generation of work and life.

How do we navigate the rapidly evolving landscape of the future of work and what skills are most needed?

We can start to answer the above question by looking at the trends, research, challenges, and opportunities that exist today, which we can capitalize on to set ourselves up for success in the work world of tomorrow. When looking at the future of work, the first trend I started to notice was that the updating of “hard” or technical skills was becoming needed more often and in more rapid intervals than ever before.

The increasing frequency of technology-related disruptive change presents a challenge in that it requires workers of all types to update more specialized sets of skills more frequently. As an unintended consequence of innovations in big data, data analytics, IT and AI, business intelligence suddenly and unexpectedly was found further down the traditional organizational chart than it had been in the past. True business insights driven from data were coming from outside the C-suite, which had traditionally relied on making decisions based on experience and intuition. From my vantage point, this shift was happening because newly graduated data scientists and/or programmers with business acumen and/or formal education began to enter the workforce with knowledge of how to use novel technologies and methods of using data to drive decision-making.

The impact of these new skill sets was made even more salient in increasingly uncertain times (e.g., global pandemic and shift to remote work). What we saw as a result of our AI and business program were senior leaders of organizations, both big and small, coming to the program for technical training in order to understand the tools and processes their employees were using to advise them on strategy.

While this rush to learn technical skills began to gain momentum, another trend began to form. Employers often told us that the hard skills were just the “table stakes”, to borrow a poker term, which meant that these skills were becoming a basic expectation simply to be able to play, let alone considering what it would actually take to win. This meant that to be considered for leadership roles in organizations, it was assumed that the successful candidate would have the required hard skills. Graduates with hard skills could be easily acquired from a number of top schools. Meanwhile, soft skills, which include interpersonal skills and communication skills, were what truly separated an applicant from the crowd and were too often missing in those who were technically brilliant. Truly, what good are analytics if you cannot interpret and communicate their insights effectively for practical application and execution?

Typically, the successful implementation of data-driven insights involves a great deal of teamwork and leadership of cross-functional teams. Further, the Agile methodology, which many companies have adopted (especially in the technology sector), focuses on an iterative approach to project management and software development, which requires ongoing collaboration between technical and non-technical employees and teams. Emerging research has produced a myriad of articles on which skills will be most needed in the future of work. Notably, Harvard Business Review’s recent article on “The C-Suite Skills That Matter Mosttackles this question. A quick summary of the article reveals that after analyzing nearly 7,000 job descriptions for C-suite roles, more than anything else, companies were seeking leaders with social skills.

If the research is telling us that soft skills are more important than ever, why do they seem increasingly rare?

To compound this problem, most post-secondary schools have traditionally focused more on developing technical skills than interpersonal skills. So-called “soft” skills are much harder to teach, largely because the rules around our interactions in increasingly complex, virtual, and global workplaces are embedded in subtlety and context. That being said, soft skills (some prefer to call them human-powered skills) certainly can be taught. Doing so requires a way of thinking about education and work that is less traditional than previous generations.

In a former life in fundraising, I was able to attend the annual Not for Profit Storytelling Conference twice. My key takeaway was that people make decisions more so due to emotion than logic. Emerging research in neuroscience (see Harvard Professor Gerald Zaltman’s work) continues to explain that people, whether CEOs, employees, or customers, are all hard-wired to be influenced more by emotion than logic. It follows that those who best understand how people think and are motivated are also often among the most valuable pieces of the puzzle in the modern workplace.

In the IT world, in particular, a gap has emerged between the typically technically savvy IT workers and the non-technical or more business-focused employees. Considering that there are at times language-skill-related gaps in communication in an increasingly international and remote workforce, it is true that even native speakers of the same language often struggle to communicate effectively between these two broad audiences.

In my role running the business and AI program, we put considerable thought, energy, and resources into training our students on both the hard and soft skills associated with building businesses, products and services using AI. The current market continues to ask us to teach Professional Communications, with an emphasis on communicating between technical and non-technical audiences, as organizations seek out knowledge translators in order to attempt to bridge this gap. 

There are issues around the education system and organizations playing catch-up on teaching soft skills. However, we can posit that modern technology and the recent shift to the mainstream acceptance of remote work have created conditions in which people are able to operate without needing to develop the basic interpersonal skills that were once needed to get by. This suggestion is not new, and as an example, we might ask, “what is the difference between having a difficult conversation over text or email versus having that same conversation in person?”

Dealing with each other is hard at times, and most people do not like conflict, so it is natural to think that people would avoid it if possible. Some of the problems new technologies can unintentionally create include a lack of social skills and self-awareness, which can result in a society that is increasingly ill-equipped to work with each other.

Canadian philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, who became internationally renowned during the 1960s for his studies of the effects of mass media on human thought and behaviour, famously said that “the medium is the message”. We can interpret this quote to say that the method(s) through which we choose to communicate with each other can also inform us of the value we place on those interpersonal relationships themselves.

For example, if you need to contact a loved one to tell them about a mutual friend or family member that has passed away, we implicitly understand that communicating this news in person or over the most personal means possible (e.g. a phone/video call) would be preferred to sending a text or email. And yet, I believe that we too often devalue our everyday communications with each other and relegate them to more impersonal means in exchange for convenience. This means that, by extension, we also relegate not only communication skills in general, but also each other, to places of diminished value in our modern lives.

Where do we go from here?

The good news amidst all of these emerging trends in the future of work is that an opportunity exists for individuals skilled in interpersonal communication to act as bridges between differing but potentially complementary perspectives. One example of a growing ecosystem desperate for such bridges or translators is the non-technical and technical worlds that need to work together in modern business. In the AI and business program, we often referred to individuals who could move seamlessly between technical and non-technical groups not only as translators but as “unicorns” that had the ability to leverage communication and soft skills as well technical competencies simultaneously. Such “unicorns” could bridge the communication gap between a sales team and a product development team, for instance, facilitating a better end-user experience.

Returning to my Uber driver from earlier, it is true and important to note that robots and automation will certainly replace some of the jobs which humans previously have been needed to do (often the most tedious and repetitive jobs). In many cases, it is also true that humans who understand modern technology will still need to lead and work as much or more with other humans in order to create successful businesses, products, and services. Through my experiences in the worlds of education, technology, and user experience design, it is clear to me that employees who understand human behaviour are better able to create more intentional and positive customer experiences and outcomes as well as better shared experiences amongst co-workers

Beyond business considerations, when it comes to solving the problems facing modern society, I would argue that the stakes around communicating and working together effectively are higher than ever, as we find ourselves in an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving world. Ultimately, the merger of hard and soft skills allows the leadership of a business, organization, non-profit, or even government to understand the complexities of human emotion and interaction pertaining to all of their key stakeholders. Advances in technology can certainly help us to tackle modern challenges in new and exciting ways. The most advanced computers still struggle to meaningfully understand and interpret the complex subtleties and nuances of human communication. That’s why we need more unicorns than robots, no matter what your Uber driver (or self-driving car) tells you.

Rishi Behari is an Inclusion Coach with Achēv, focusing on soft skills development for technology professionals. He is also a professional speaker, consultant, coach, teacher and facilitator. The Founder of Flowstate Coaching & Consulting, Rishi continues to appear across media as a guest expert on a range of topics including the effects of emerging technologies on modern society, with a focus on their intersection with issues of ethics, equity, diversity, and belonging.

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