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7 Skills That Aren’t About to Be Automated

by Adam J. Gustein and John Svioka

Today’s young professionals grew up in an age of mind-boggling technological change, seeing the growth of the internet, the invention of the smartphone, and the development of machine-learning systems. These advances all point toward the total automation of our lives, including the way we work and do business. It’s no wonder, then, that young people are anxious about their ability to compete in the job market. As executives who have spent our lives assessing and implementing digital technology in every type of organization, we often get asked by them: “What should I learn today so that I’ll have a job in the future?” In what follows we’ll share seven skills that can not only make you unable to be automated, but will make you employable no matter what the future holds. 

Communication. In a world where U.S. adults’ total media usage is nearly 12 hours a day, on average, communication skills are essential for getting people’s attention and moving them to action. The most basic form of communication is constructing a compelling story. The good news, from a competitive standpoint, is that most people have turned their brain over to bad software, resulting in the all-too-familiar “death by PowerPoint.” Instead of just listing facts, compelling storytellers use both soft and hard data. This is true whether the speaker is Albert Einstein imagining himself on a train nearing the speed of light to explain relativity or John F. Kennedy quoting John Winthrop’s saying, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.” In effective communication, story and fact, rhetoric and science intertwine to enlist the emotions of others to take action on a topic or an initiative. And although efforts have been launched to create robot authors, and the impact of robots on fake news and echo chambers is undeniably significant, the ability to communicate compellingly will always be in high demand and hard to automate.

Content. Of course, communication must be about a particular topic. And if you know a great deal about a given domain, you have a rich base on which to draw. Moreover, if you have an appreciation for the dynamics of that domain, you have something mere Googling can never replicate. Even deeper, if you have a reputation for excellence in a domain, it will feed on itself and give you preferential access to new knowledge and information because of your insider status.

In professional services, experts can write their own ticket. Take Rohit Kumar, the principal and leader of National Tax Policy Services at PWC, where Adam works. Kumar is well known on Capitol Hill and with global tax experts because he has deep and broad knowledge of the subject and understands the dynamics of how policy will shape up now and in the future. Again, it is those with a combination of expertise and the ability to move new knowledge forward who will stay ahead of the robots.

Context. Automated systems are usually very bad at recognizing context. For example, the original Google car found it hard to compute the context within which it was operating. So, a physical extension of the computing/sensing system — a laser range finder — was added. This problem of extending the automatic reasoning of AI systems to understand the context of their decisions is highly complex, and creative innovation, like the one at Google, is usually needed to push the effort forward.

Likewise, understanding the context, business model, competition, and leadership of a client or an employer makes your understanding of content more useful. For example, if you are suggesting cost reduction and balance sheet restructuring to GE, where activist investor Nelson Peltz, one of the founders of hedge fund Trian Fund Management, has a major stake, your pitch has a very different meaning than it would at News Corporation, where Rupert Murdoch still has effective control of the company. This type of contextual understanding shows that you have a knowledge of the dynamics of a business’s position and is very hard for even the best robots to grok.

Emotional competence. Even with the advanced capabilities of AI products such as Amazon’s Alexa, machines are rudimentary in their ability to understand the emotional tenor of a person, meeting, or organization. Yet, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio noted in Descarte’s Error, our option set may be shaped by rationality, but it is emotion that binds us to action. Moreover, we have found that the defining characteristic of executive decisions is that there is no right answer, and the options are laden with emotional consequences: Whose career will soar? Whose will be gored? Who will get promoted? Who will lose their job?

The most basic level of emotional competence is being able to recognize the emotions at play in the context of analysis and action. The next level is the ability to successfully intervene in an emotionally complex situation, when people are hurt or uncertain. At the highest level, emotional competence involves persuading individuals and groups by evoking emotion (while simultaneously recognizing that some team members don’t buy into what you’re saying).

Teaching. Machines have made great contributions to the quality and accessibility of education, from massive open online courses (MOOCS) to teaching simulations to Khan Academy lessons. In commercial organizations, though, where teaching requires understanding the context of a person’s development within the organization, managers and coaches shine. For example, when Ben Horowitz was the director of product management at Netscape, he faced a problem: Many managers on his team felt overworked, yet their efforts did not translate into successful evangelism for the products they were in charge of. He wrote a short document titled Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager and used it to train his team on his basic expectations. What happened next shocked him: “The performance of my team instantly improved. Product managers that I previously thought were hopeless became effective. Pretty soon, I was managing the highest-performing team in the company.”

Horowitz may have been surprised, but we aren’t. People are a key investment in any organization, and in our experience teaching is crucial to ensuring their success. Like any investment, people come with a degree of risk. You don’t know from past performance how someone will do in your organization. You may have hired someone who looked good on paper but hasn’t produced much since being hired, or someone who’s doing well where he or she is but isn’t demonstrating the skills needed for promotion. In both cases your investment is flat, maybe even losing money – and if your investment in people is flat, chances are that your business returns are flat too. How do you catalyze breakthrough performance in your business? Start with your people. Identify their gaps in knowledge and skills and work personally with them to fill those gaps. This is something robots will never be able to effectively do.

Connections. In 1973, Mark Granovetter and Harrison White published a paper that outlined the strong power of weak ties. Everyone, they argued, has strong ties: family, friends, coworkers, and so on. But those who have both strong ties and a large network of weak ties can traverse multiple organizations with ease. One of the defining distinctions between people “in the C-suite” and the actual CEO is that CEOs usually have many more weak ties in a variety of domains.

Although social media make it easier to create and traverse personal networks, humans manage the shape and tenor of those connections. And don’t forget the so-called friend paradox, which holds that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. A few people have many, many connections, while most have only a modest number. If you are one of the networkers, then you’re fine. If you are not, you should befriend one and free ride on his or her connections – people are generally willing to share.

An ethical compass. As computers become more capable, executives are realizing just how important ethics and the capacity for moral judgement are in the field of applied AI. However, the essence of moral judgement is that there is no easy algorithm to maximize “value”, so systems that rely on algorithms are inadequate in situations involving such judgments. The prototypical case of the robot driver caught between hitting an oncoming bus and killing the car’s passengers or avoiding the passengers’ death by veering onto a sidewalk and killing a group of schoolchildren demonstrates this point. We don’t have an optimization function for such situations. The more we leverage human talent with machines, the more important it will be to have leaders who not only recognize but embrace the great moral dilemmas that organizations face. The fact that the world will be increasingly controlled by machines lacking an ethical compass amplifies the importance of having people in our future workforce who possess strong moral values. 

So, there you have it: seven skills that a robot doesn’t have and won’t have in the foreseeable future. To be sure, robots will help people develop these types of skills, but a person – preferably you – will possess them. In combination, the elements on our list can make you commercially independent, whether you decide to join a company, make a living in the gig economy, or start your own organization.

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