The Skills Every Business Needs Now

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The Skills Every Business Needs Now

18 January 2018

Forget coding – why creativity and emotional intelligence are essential to stay on top of the tech revolution.

We are teetering on the edge of the Fourth Revolution in technology. The first great revolution – the agricultural one – took place thousands of years ago, followed by the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Digital Revolution that has been raging for just a couple of decades. Each of these upheavals transformed society beyond recognition.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the Fourth Revolution will be 10 times as fast, 300 times the scale and have 3,000 times the impact of the Industrial Revolution. It is likely to disrupt humanity in ways we cannot even imagine, and this seismic shift will be driven by artificial intelligence. As we peer into the unknowable abyss that is AI, it’s worth pausing and asking what skills will see us through the next few years.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has published a handy piece of research on the future of work, forecasting that 35 per cent of the skills that are considered important today will not be in five years’ time, while 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will do jobs we’ve never even heard of. Here, we take a look at the key skills that everyone needs to prosper during the Fourth Revolution.

According to the WEF report, creativity will go from being the 10th most valuable skill today to the third most valuable by 2020. We still have a wishy-washy definition of creativity in the West, despite the fact that the creative industries – media, architecture, design, fashion, publishing and advertising – power much of our economic growth. There is nothing soft about creativity and we need to reclaim the term as the foundation of bold, challenging, original thinking to flourish as the world of work changes.

At its core, creativity is the ability to think beyond the established order and it’s exactly that skill that AI struggles with. Being creative is not the opposite of being analytical, either. In fact, the best problem solving comes from being able to assess the facts and come up with a novel solution. The only skills forecast to outrank creativity in 2020 are complex-problem solving and critical thinking, meaning that all three top skills of the future are actually creative disciplines. They involve thinking through a situation and finding new solutions.

British educators have long bemoaned the fact that our schoolchildren are falling behind their East Asian rivals in maths and science, but in China, they are trying to rebalance their education system in the other direction with the mantra “to every question there should be more than a single answer”. Computers can do maths far better than any human, but imagination and creative leaps cannot be programmed (as yet). No wonder top institutions such as Stanford have introduced courses in playfulness while the University of Cambridge now has a professor of play (sponsored by Lego). As the future becomes the present, ignore creativity at your peril.

We’re used to suppressing emotional responses at work, telling ourselves that it’s the head not the heart that should control professional decision-making. But just as with creativity, emotion is something that our AI-enhanced toolkit is just not very good at. To secure your future usefulness, you need to think less like a machine and more like a human. A team’s success is linked to the collective emotional intelligence of the individuals in it, not their IQ (as we reported here).

Instead of seeing emotion as irrational, we need to reframe it as essential to relationship building. The average worker now spends 50 per cent more time in collaborative activities than they did a decade ago, meaning that the ability to adapt to different personalities, styles, perspectives and relationships is key. Offices now encompass five generations of people (from 18 to 80 years old) and are increasingly culturally diverse, so to survive in the future workforce you need to be able to bond and collaborate with people who may have a radically different mindset from your own.

Looking at the WEF rankings of future skills, two completely new entries in the top 10 for 2020 are emotional intelligence (number six) and cognitive flexibility (number 10). Negotiation and co-ordinating with others also stay in the top 10 rankings. What that means, then, is that interpersonal skills dominate the leaderboard, and will dominate the future of work.

It’s not all brainstorming and group hugs, however. The Fourth Revolution means that technology will become embedded in every aspect of our daily lives and our reliance on it will be total. A fluency in tech is essential in this new era, but we need to redefine how we approach high-tech education. It will be less about the practical skills of coding and numeracy – again, bots are cheaper, faster and harder working than you – but more about a deep understanding of the potentials and pitfalls of different high-tech approaches. It’s only by questioning and unpacking these black boxes that we’ll be able to navigate this new landscape.

It’s telling that leaders of industry across the western world are doubling down on investment in tech education. Mr Bill Gates recently announced that the sciences, engineering and economics will remain the most in-demand skills in the future, and has created a $1bn fund to find high-tech solutions to climate change.

It’s this ability to apply technology to solve real-world challenges that will become the future focus of business, seamlessly combining analytical sciences with creativity and problem solving. In the UK, vacuum-cleaner entrepreneur Sir James Dyson has launched an engineering school at Imperial College in London with the explicit aim of bridging the gap between creative design and technical education. To thrive in the Fourth Revolution, we need to stop seeing the arts and sciences as two cultures opposed to one another, but as two arms of the same organism.

The pace of change in the Fourth Revolution is such that any of these skills will be worthless unless you’re willing to completely change them every few years. Our current education system focuses on frontloading learning into the first 20 years of our lives, supposedly setting us up for the next 60 years of our careers. This is no longer tenable. In the future, employers need to take on the responsibilities and roles of educators, promoting lifelong learning and a constant reskilling of the workforce.

Businesses are the passive recipients of human talent. When employees no longer have the skills for the job, they are often phased out and new employees are hired. This is not only a crappy way to treat human beings, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to operate as a company. We need to reinvent the very meaning of the HR department so that it moves away from pen-pushing and becomes a much more engaged engine in corporate strategy that constantly monitors talent trends and identifies potential skills gaps that need to be tackled.

For human workers to survive the Fourth Revolution, businesses, government and universities need to work in a more integrated way, with economic demands coming in earlier and education sticking around for longer. This new approach to lifelong learning, combined with creative flare, emotional astuteness and tech savvy, will define the future worker.

Workplace wear

Illustrations by Mr David Doran