We all know about STEM, but Geoff Colvin suggests that’s not the whole problem for our future work success. Instead high achievers know stuff that STEM, brilliant software and machines will never know or bring to the party.
In his Fortune article and new book, Humans are Underrated, Colvin certainly has his finger on the right three issues. What’s unique is his framing of the issue of technological obsolescence. Typically, the framing is around what computers can’t do. Year after year we try to estimate the answer to that problem. But year after year software developers and algorithms prove us wrong. Amusingly, the Germans have a new robot that can both load and unload the dishwasher. So, what next? Driving the car? Diagnosing your illness? You should know better than that. Figuring out what computers will never do and framing the issue that way is a perilous task.
Instead, Colvin asks, “what are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do them?”
As you read through the three activities, now’s the time to start asking what you need to do to develop expertise in all three of those activities.
Humans will remain in charge. In the final analysis there are many tasks and professions in which humans must always remain accountable. These are tasks that are in our DNA, tasks that we won’t want turned over to machines. Strangely, Colvin begins his argument with reference to parole decisions made by the judiciary, Similarly , he writes that it’s a safe bet that CEOs, generals, government leaders at every level –will also remain in their roles. Humans aren’t willing to make machines accountable for significant decisions. This activity is all about our demands for human accountability.
Humans must collaborate to set collective goals. Certainly machines can solve some problems, but for purely practical reasons humans are required. Our penchant in real life and especially in organizations for redefining problems and changing goals will require us to do these things in groups. And though most of us get frustrated with group decision-making, at bottom we understand that groups can make better decisions than individuals. The potential for buy-in is always more widespread in groups and in collaboration than in machinery. And buy-in is typically required for successful purchase and execution of ideas, services and products.
Only humans can satisfy deep interpersonal needs. Indeed, we are social beings. We’re hardwired from evolution to equate personal relationships with survival and we’re not going to give that need over to machines and algorithms. We want to follow human leaders, even if a computer could say all the right words, which is not an implausible prospect. We want to hear our diagnosis from a doctor, even if a computer supplied it, because we want to talk to the doctor about it—perhaps just to talk and know we’re being heard by a human being. We want to negotiate important agreements with a person, hearing every quaver in his voice, noting when he crosses his arms, looking into his eyes.
Shocking! One of the more shocking comments Colvin makes in his book is that basic engineering, which is usually thought of as the best route to success, is going to be far less valuable in the future. Instead, social skills are going to be the sine qua non. Developing those skills from the humanities is feasible, but not as easy as most think. The research, however, is unequivocal. The quality of social interaction of a team determines its success or failure. Empathy will be an absolute necessity for success. Reading literary fiction is a key means for developing social skills and empathy. How you deliver a message is often more important than the message. Etc., etc.
Two of the real problems we face in talking about and training people in social skills, say, are that after childhood we typically encounter no one who tries deliberately to improve our social skills, and we generally don’t try to do it ourselves. Fact of the matter, most think their social skills are just fine, until…that is…they find themselves in desperate need for much more than is in their tool kit.
But it is a shocking surprise—and long overdue–to read Geoff Colvin of Fortune magazine playing down technology skills and raising up the humanities.