The Skills Humans Need to Stay Relevant In The Smart Machine Age

Published: Apr 24, 2017
Modified: May 18, 2020

By AMA Staff

In the coming decades, the smart machine age will transform organizations through artificial intelligence and other technologies. As a variety of jobs are automated, the disruption will equal that of the Industrial Revolution, according to Edward Hess, professor and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Hess is co-author with Katherine Ludwig of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).

Hess spoke with AMA’s Edgewise podcast series about the coming effects of automation on the world of work. The projected statistics are, in fact, eye-opening: Researchers at Oxford University have estimated that about 47% of employment in the United States has the potential to be automated in a relatively short time frame—perhaps the next two decades.

“The best research out there says [the smart machine age] is going to basically change the nature of work, and change who is going to work and what they are going to do,” said Hess.

Thriving in the smart machine age

What role will humans play in a highly automated workplace? They must excel at the skills that smart machines and robots cannot do well, said Hess in the AMA podcast. Here’s a recap of his advice:

People must develop higher-order skills. Individuals will need skills that enable them to participate as artificial intelligence is infused into every business function. The consensus view, said Hess, is that these skills include critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement with other humans. “You’ve got to take your thinking, listening, emotional relating, and collaborating skills to a much higher level, because artificial intelligence is going to basically automate service industries and professional jobs,” he said.

We must view ourselves and the world with humility. Hess points out that the higher-order skills do not come naturally to humans, who defend their egos and process information if it agrees with what they already believe. That’s why humility is essential to preparing for the new workplace. Humility allows you to have a self-accurate view of your capabilities, your limitations, and what you know and do not know. It gives you a view of the world that is less self-protective.

When we lessen our “me” focus and “me” lens of the world, we can perceive situations more accurately and draw on higher-order skills. “I can be more open-minded, more data driven, think more like a scientist,” Hess said. “Therefore, I’ll be a better critical thinker and a better innovative thinker and more open to collaborating with others.”

Organizations need to create environments that support higher-order skills. Organizations must develop systems—leadership models, measurements, rewards, and people policies—that drive the behaviors which enable people to think, listen, relate, and collaborate to their highest potential, said Hess. The workplace culture also must address the two biggest obstacles to being innovative and creative—ego and fear. “You’ve got to create the environment that reduces fear and mitigates ego,” he said.

A command-and-control culture will not work in the organization of the future, where the performance level of people will be a key differentiator. “Every organization is going to be in the business of developing its human assets, because technology and human capabilities are going to be the two differentiators,” said Hess.