The Future of Work: 5 Skills for the Robotic Age

  • 5 mins read

The challenges of 21st-century work – rapid innovation, unrelenting change and unprecedented uncertainty – have created a stress pandemic.
Depending on your disposition, you may view the future as ripe for a spectacular explosion of creativity or poised on the brink of self-destruction. Either way, there’s no going back.
The tools and skills we’ve developed over the last century inadequately address imminent challenges. We’re caught between two paradigms: a collapsing industrial platform and an uncertain new one.
Man vs. Machine
In February 2011, the IBM computer “Watson ” trounced two Jeopardy! champions over a 3-day competition. Watson’s cognitive-reasoning skills were far superior, with access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content (4 terabytes of disk storage, including the full text of Wikipedia).
Even before Alex Trebek finished reading a clue, Watson’s 2,880 parallel processor cores began to divvy up the workload. At 33 billion operations per second, they could search 500 gigabytes of data (roughly 1 million books) in the blink of an eye. Watson could also hit the buzzer in less than 8 milliseconds.
During the 3 seconds Watson took to deliver a correct response, various algorithms worked across multiple processors to return hundreds of hypothetical answers. Watson was programmed to hit the buzzer only after reaching a 50% confidence level. By the end of the game, Watson had surpassed previous champions’ winnings by almost 200%, easily becoming the first nonhuman Jeopardy! champion.
In February 2013, IBM announced that Watson’s first commercial software application would be used for utilization management decisions at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Ninety percent of nurses who use Watson now follow its guidance.
This is an example of how robots, machines and computers will ultimately take our jobs. We must harness our creative energy in new ways to stay ahead of the “robot curve”.
“Help! A Robot Ate My Job!”
If you haven’t yet heard this complaint, you will. Today’s widespread unemployment is not a jobs crisis; it’s a talent crisis. Technology is taking every job that doesn’t require a high degree of creativity, humanity or leadership.
In times of rapid change, success favors those who can make big leaps of imagination, courage and effort. The call for new ways to work will become even more pressing.
10 Areas Ripe for Innovation
The Doblin Group, a Chicago think tank, has identified 10 areas where innovation can deliver competitive advantages:

  1. The business model: how a company makes money
  2. Networking: including organizational structure, value chain, partnerships
  3. Enabling processes: the capabilities a company buys from others
  4. Core processes: proprietary methods that add value
  5. Product performance: including features and functionality
  6. Product systems: extended systems that support the product
  7. Service: how a company treats customers
  8. Channels: how companies connect offerings to customers
  9. Branding: how a company builds its reputation
  10. Customer experience: including the touchpoints where customers encounter the brand

Think of problems as opportunities to find worthy and inspiring solutions. In Metaskills: 5 Talents for the Robotic Age, business adviser Marty Neumeier encourages leaders to use the following questions as inspiration points:

  • What’s the “either/or” that’s obscuring innovation opportunities?
  • In which areas do the usual methods no longer achieve predicted results?
  • What’s the “can’t-do” that you can turn into a “can-do”?
  • Which problems are so big that they can no longer be seen?
  • Which categories or sectors exhibit the most uneven rates of change?
  • In which area is there a great deal of interest, but very few solutions?
  • Where can you find too little or too much order?
  • Which of your talents can be upscaled in some surprising way?
  • Where can your passion take you?

5 Skills for the Robotic Age
We need to stay on top of the robot curve – the constant waterfall of obsolescence and opportunity fed by competition and innovation.
Neumeier presents five metaskills that – so far – robots cannot handle:

  1. 1. Feeling encompasses intuition, empathy and social intelligence. Humans draw on emotion for intuition, aesthetics and empathy – skills that are becoming more vital as we enter the robotic age.
  2. 2. Seeing is the ability to think whole thoughts (also known as “system thinking”). We understand parts of a system when we appreciate their relationship to each other, rather than in isolation. Before tinkering with a system, we need to ask:
    1. What will happen if I do nothing?
    2. What may be improved?
    3. What may be diminished?
    4. What will be replaced?
    5. Will it expand future options?
    6. What are the ethical considerations?
    7. Will it simplify or complicate the system?
    8. Are my basic assumptions correct?
    9. What has to be true to make this possible?
    10. Are events likely to unfold this way?
    11. If so, will the system really react this way?
    12. What are the factors behind the events?
    13. What are the long-term costs and benefits?
    1. Dreaming requires you to apply your imagination. Innovators transform their dreams into practical solutions. You dream by disassociating your thoughts from all that is linear and the logical. Like most things, dreaming improves with practice.
    2. Making involves mastering the design process, including skills for devising prototypes. Creativity is nothing without craft. The act of making something turns imagination into brilliant products, services and successful businesses.
    3. Learning is an ongoing process. We must continually master skills to adapt. We then apply our newfound knowledge in innovative ways. Learning is enhanced through good moods, action and emotional experiences. We become masterful through deliberate practice.


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