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Onward to the Soft and Squishy

David Brooks beat me to the punch again. I had half finished a blog on Geoff Colvin’s fascinating new book, “Humans Are Underrated,” planning to finish it in the next couple weeks. But no, he reviewed it in a superb column, “The New Romantics,” emphasizing business’ return to the importance of the relational. Still, there’s a lot more to be said about Colvin’s seminal work.

Colvin emphasizes that most business tasks are relational (i.e. conversational). Ironically, technological forces are actually driving the need for relational or conversational skills. Case in point: tech project managers are essentially conversationalists. (They don’t code and for that matter don’t need to know how to code. They just need to understand coding and what it can do. But they’re responsible for making certain those development jobs get done well and on time.) Recently I checked out project management positions available just in the city of Minneapolis. Linkedin surfaced 801 openings in a couple seconds. A friend of mine, recruiting for a staff augmentation firm, told me that a good tech project manager in Minneapolis can get up to $140-$150,000.

Reframing the competition with computing.
Colvin’s point is that trying to figure out what computers can’t do and getting an education to fill that need is wrongheaded. The driving question is what do high achievers need to know that brilliant machines never will? Colvin argues that high-value skills, built on the humanities and social sciences, are the only sure way to beat the machines. These skills include empathy (the ability to discern what someone is thinking and feeling and be able to respond to them), interaction (not merely transactions, but the uses of conversation to make people more intelligent about what they’re thinking, doing and creating), storytelling, humor, building relationships, expressing ourselves with greater power than logic can ever achieve. Writing well is another absolutely necessary skill. But let’s get this straight too: the social media are the enemy of empathy and high-value conversational skills.

What to do?
Colvin lays the ultimate issue on the line in his summary Fortune article. The emerging picture of the future casts conventional career advice in a new light, especially the nonstop urging that students study coding and STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, math. It has been excellent advice for quite a while; eight of the 10 highest-paying college majors are in engineering, and those skills will remain critically important. But important isn’t the same as high-value or well-paid. As infotech continues its advance into higher skills, value will continue to move elsewhere. Engineers will stay in demand, it’s safe to say, but tomorrow’s most valuable engineers will not be geniuses in cubicles; rather they’ll be those who can build relationships, brainstorm, collaborate, and lead.

What all this suggests is very shocking. In short, those techie and basic engineering skills are going to be far less valuable in the future. Once more, it’s back to the humanities!


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