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Karlien Vanderheyden

Vlerick Business School

Professor of People Management and Leadership

Read more from Karlien Vanderheyden

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How to future-proof your career from automation


There has been much discussion centred around the impact of AI, automation, and robots on the future of work. Many people are divided on whether or not it is a good thing that more and more machines are implemented into the workforce at an ever-increasing rate – otherwise known as Industry 4.0 or the fourth industry revolution. Much of the focus surrounding Industry 4.0 has been on how likely it is to have a positive impact on companies who invest in these technologies. However, there have been many claims that these technologies could have a negative effect on workers, especially those in lower skilled roles.

There has been, however, very little discussion around the significant positives that implementing this technology could have on workers. In fact, this technology can have a profound effect, supporting workers in a number of ways.

For example, these machines can take on highly repetitive tasks which bring human workers little enjoyment, jobs that are too dangerous for people and activities that are complex and time-consuming – ensuring that these tasks are completed more efficiently. Building teams comprising of both humans and machines is one way to get the best from both technology and people. However, this does mean that it is likely that humans will have to adjust their skillsets, and also change their mindsets, as more machines are introduced into their everyday working practices.

Despite sophisticated machines being able to automate tasks and make many decisions without human involvement, for the time being there are still many tasks that are impossible for machines to complete. These are centred around distinctly human traits, particularly soft skills that robots cannot replicate. Therefore, it is important that workers look to develop and improve their soft skills, as the tasks machines are unable to perform focus heavily around them.

A white paper, which I co-authored with colleagues at Vlerick Business School, sets out three critical skillsets that are necessary for workers to develop if they want to future-proof their careers against the rise of automation;

Critical thinking and decision-making

The use of AI in these machines allows them to make extremely rational, accurate and reliable decisions based on data, and act without any prejudices. These qualities are ones that are likely to be seen as an advantage – but that might not always be the case.

In some instances, using a machine to make decisions may not be the right thing to do. In fact, on many occasions critical thinking, in which a number of factors are considered, needs to be applied to analyse and make the right decision for all parties. This is something machines cannot always deliver.

For example, a typical way in which machines are used in decision making in industry is in recruitment. Many firms use AI to discount candidates based on specific criteria. One of which often seen is ‘distance to work’, which means candidates who live a short way out of a specific radius, may be rejected for a role by a machine, despite being perfect for the role in every other way.

People are much better at applying this critical thinking to their decision-making compared to machines, as they can be selective with the data and the parameters that are used in algorithms, allowing them to make more sensible, rational decisions that take numerous factors into account.

Emotional and social intelligence

As previously discussed, these sophisticated automated machines can make very rational decisions. However, they are unable to make decisions from an ethical or empathetic standpoint unlike human workers, who have emotional and social intelligence and are able to connect with people. Therefore, humans will take a greater number of factors into account when making these decisions.

For instance, an employee may make mistakes fairly often, prompting a machine to decide that they are not good enough for their role. However, a human is much more likely to consider other factors in their decision-making; perhaps they are experiencing personal issues, were not trained properly, or are particularly cautious in their role. By considering emotions and understanding the reasons behind situations, a person is much more likely to make a different, and more suitable decision.

Machines are also unable to communicate any of the insight or reasoning behind the decisions they make. When it comes to stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and partners, not only do you need people to build these relationships in the first place, but you also need people to communicate complex plans with them consistently.

Creativity and intuition

When it comes to machines delivering specific skills, creativity is probably a skill that is least likely to be automated, and one that is vital for organisations. As automated machines work using the repeated input of data, they are unable to think of anything completely new and only able to deliver adaptations of past data. Whereas people are able to innovate, consider different perspectives and come up with completely fresh ideas.

There is also a huge part that intuition, or one’s gut feeling, can play in decision making. Whether it be investments, employing new workers, or making risky business decisions, people can use their intuition to decide if something just doesn’t feel right. These are all skills that a machine does not have the capacity to deliver.

All three of these skillsets are critical for workers to develop as more and more aspects of traditional work are being automated. In fact, it is something that already plays an important part in the hiring stage for recruitment firms, according to Sara Wright, Quality Assurance Manager at Sopra Steria Recruitment.

 “Many companies are now making screening for soft skills an integral part of the hiring process. AI and bots may streamline and accelerate certain processes, but they will never truly displace the human interface, therefore this hiring process will include empathy, understanding, emotional intelligence and critical thinking, which can’t be replicated by machines” says, Wright. “For employees with the right soft skills, technology will serve as an enabler, letting them spend far more time focussing on the human aspects of their jobs.”

Developing these key soft skills are important for workers if they want to future-proof their careers against automation. Workers who can do this effectively will excel in the non-automated aspects of their roles, and partner with machines which deal with their repetitive, time-consuming tasks.

Workers who are unable to develop these skills are likely to see their role overtaken by a machine.

Author Profile Picture
Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of People Management and Leadership

Read more from Karlien Vanderheyden

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