Rodin’s 19th-century sculpture of The Thinker may have resonated only with the intellectual elite, and not with the workers of the time. But, in the 21st century and ahead, The Thinker will come to dominate the workforce. Most routine, repetitive and replicable jobs like cashiers, data entry operators, construction workers will get automated. Some high-skill jobs may also get partially automated – like the repetitive tasks done by lawyers, doctors, architects, etc. That will leave humans with work that requires high order, non-linear thinking capabilities. The new jobs being created like big data analyst, bio-medical engineer, AI specialist, nano-tech engineer, etc., will have a large component of thinking work associated with them. Essentially, the entire set of thinking capabilities – creativity, critical thinking, logical reasoning, problem solving, analysis & synthesis will become increasingly important.
This transition from physical to mental/thinking work has been around for quite some time. Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in the late 1950s for people whose work relied primarily on their knowledge and thinking abilities, instead of their physical capacities. This evolution will accelerate in the 21st century, with the advent of Artificial Intelligence and automation. As per HfS Research (a market analysis firm), high-skill jobs are expected to increase by 57% in the IT sector between 2016 and 2022.
Besides high-order thinking, the other capability that is extremely challenging for machines to replicate is emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize, understand interpersonal dynamics and manage relationships is very difficult to “algorithm-ise”. Truth be told, it is also very tough to teach emotional intelligence to humans, even to those with exceptionally high IQs (there is pretty much no correlation between Emotional Quotient (EQ) and IQ – at least, no clear cut research and conclusions on this yet).
Therefore, jobs needing high degrees of human interaction and emotional intelligence like nursing, caretaking, social workers, primary school teachers etc. will face little threat from automation. Leadership roles also need very high levels of emotional intelligence, and it is unlikely that a machine will be able to replace a leader who can inspire, motivate, energize and lead people towards a compelling vision.
In a way, the “thinking” and “feeling” human capabilities will rule supreme, and the “doing” (physical actions and low-medium complexity mental work) will be taken over by machines. The obvious implications of this are that the cultivation of higher-order thinking skills and emotional intelligence will be critical for the workforce.
Technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace. A technical/functional skill learned today, may become obsolete very soon. Constant unlearning and re-learning will be the order of the day. Jacob Morgan in his book The Future of Work talks about the “learning worker” who will thrive in the 21st century. The “learning worker” has a strong grasp of the learning process itself, she has learned how to learn. She’s curious, agile, willing to adapt and flex herself to navigate successfully through new and challenging situations.
So, here are some thoughts on how organizations can create a workforce that is emotionally intelligent, can think, learn, unlearn and relearn.
Establish a culture of learning – There is a lot that can be done to create a learning culture – specialized workshops, peer learning groups, social media learning, learning communities, etc., the list is endless. But, at a minimal level, a very powerful step that an organization can take is to ensure that every employee has learning goals. These goals are to be derived based on a discussion with the manager on performance feedback, future career goals, and business needs. The learning resources – training/self-learning/books/podcasts/webinars/ mentoring etc. also need to be identified. The progress on these goals needs to be reviewed regularly.
Along with the performance review, one question that every employee should be able to answer satisfactorily and in-depth should be “What new skill/habit/mindset/capability have you learned this year, and how will you leverage it for your own and the organization’s benefit?”
Simple as this process may sound, it is shocking that a lot of organizations only pay lip service to employee development planning. There are huge business costs of ignoring learning, and in the coming future, organizations will literally have to pay with their lives for this lapse.
Establish a culture of thinking – Organizations place a premium on speed, everything needs to be done fast, and the typical worker is always seen in a rush from one meeting to another. Speed has a value, there is no doubt about that, but the problem arises when speed is achieved at the cost of depth – Depth of thinking! Speed has started becoming a thief of thinking time. And, the second thief of this precious thinking time, is a highly distracted world, full of social media pings and notifications.
Cal Newport in his book Deep Work - Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World defines “deep work” as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. He calls deep work a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. Organizations need to create time and space for deep thinking. Maybe, there needs to be some re-thinking around open offices –they are excellent for collaboration and establishing team spirit. But, are they coming in the way of “thinking work”, where one needs to be distraction free? How can an office environment be designed to meet the twin needs of collaboration and deep work? There needs to be some deliberation around this to find a suitable answer.
Deep work can only be powered by high order thinking capabilities. A huge emphasis needs to be laid on building thinking capabilities by equipping employees with tools and techniques for deep thinking - problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking, logical reasoning, analysis, and synthesis. Performance goals should weave in the application of thinking capabilities, and include a significant thinking component in the assigned work. Leaders need to be trained to value, respect and nurture the thinking abilities in their team. They also need to develop skills in deep questioning and purposive inquiry, which will feed into further innovation and continuous improvement for the business.
Build emotionally intelligent leaders – Command and control leadership styles have usually worked for low complexity, routine jobs. An autocratic leadership style will mostly fail if applied for knowledge workers and learning workers. The level of emotional intelligence needed to effectively manage knowledge workers / learning workers is higher than that needed to manage manual labourers.
Highly competent workers need to be managed largely through participative and delegatory leadership styles. These styles of leadership can only be practiced by a leader who has a well-developed core of emotional intelligence. An emotionally intelligent leader is willing to share power, she provides the requisite degree of autonomy to her subordinates, and is humble enough to know that the team members may have greater expertise than her. She is able to focus on defining a clear “why”, and then step back to avoid micro-management, while the team works on the “how” to achieve the “why”.
Emotionally intelligent leaders have always been in short supply. And, this shortage will become even more acute, as most workers to be led in the future will be learning workers, with high order thinking capabilities, and millennials who are seeking autonomy, meaning and impact. Organizations need to prioritize the development of an emotionally intelligent leadership pipeline if they want to attract and retain the learning workers of tomorrow.
If the demands from the workforce are changing, then the education system which trains and provides the workforce also needs to change. The school and college curriculums should equip students with learning tools and techniques, helping them understand the process of learning to become sharper and faster learners. Thinking capabilities in students have to be honed, and they need to be trained in critical thinking and non-linear thought processes. A huge emphasis needs to be laid on the development of emotional intelligence and skills like empathy, listening, relationship building need to be imparted to students.
The education system by itself, as well as through industry and academia partnerships needs to focus on building these capabilities. This will ensure that students enter the workforce with a greater level of readiness for the 21st-century work realities.