The Challenge of Scaling Soft Skills
It is becoming increasingly clear that for most working people, a proportion of the working tasks they currently perform will be either completely replaced by machines (AI if the tasks are cognitive, robots if they are manual) or augmented by a human-machine interface.
While there is less clarity about the types of tasks that will remain within the human domain, we can make some predictions. We know that, right now and in the foreseeable future, machines are generally poor at understanding a person’s mood, at sensing the situation around them, and at developing trusting relationships. So as the World Economic Forum report on future skills argued, it is human “soft skills” that will become increasingly valuable — skills such as empathy, context sensing, collaboration, and creative thinking.
That means that millions of people across the world will have to make the transition toward becoming a great deal better versed in these soft skills.
But that’s far from easy. The paradox is that while we understand a lot about how to develop the “hard skills” of analysis, decision-making, and analytical judgment, we know a great deal less about the genesis of soft skills. Perhaps more important, much of the context of how people learn and perform is currently skewed toward hard skills. Understanding the obstacles to developing soft skills and then addressing them is crucial for our schools, our homes, and our workplaces.
Three Barriers to Developing Soft Skills
It seems to me that there are three major barriers to scaling the development of soft skills.
Schools are too much like factories. The basic foundations for most schooling systems were laid down after the Industrial Revolution. The aim by the early 1900s was clear: to take a population that was mainly engaged in craft or agricultural work and prepare it for work in factories — and, more recently, offices. Though some schools have moved the curriculum to soft skills and creativity, in many schools, these traditions hold firm. Children are trained to stay still for hours at a time (as they would on a factory production line), to engage in rote learning, and to be compliant and follow rules. The pity of this is that these skills are ones at which machines are highly competent. More important, these conditions do little to nurture in children the skills of compassion, inventiveness, and being able to interpret people correctly.
The home is saturated with technology. There is mounting evidence that technology use is affecting the development of human soft skills. When children and adults spend a significant amount of their time engaged with virtual online games and social media, for instance, there is some evidence that their face-to-face social skills begin to atrophy. Short volleys of social interaction do little to support social skills. This is important, because the evolutionary benefits that humans have developed in empathy and collaboration need to be reinforced in subtle individual learning. Contrast, for example, a child’s conversations with the Amazon Alexa virtual assistant and with an actual adult. In interacting with Alexa, the child may be tempted to bark instructions and possibly be rude to the machine. Alexa simply replies back in a steady, dignified manner. If a child mimicked such an interaction with an adult, he or she would likely be reprimanded for rude behavior.
That is not to take away from the fact that technology could play a significantly beneficial role in the development of soft skills. Over the last decade, there have been major developments in technology-based learning, including online programs that tens of thousands of people can participate in. The primary focus of the majority of these programs has been on helping people develop hard skills. These programs are very competent at teaching content, simulating decision-making, and testing for knowledge. But what these learning technologies have not yet cracked at scale is how to support the development of soft skills across thousands or millions of people. Those that do teach these skills tend to be small-scale initiatives that involve face time and mentoring.
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Stressful work reduces empathy. Finally, there is the challenge of the context of work itself. There is clear evidence that most adults learn a great deal at work, so we could imagine that adults could learn soft skills in the workplace. But it turns out that the development and use of soft skills such as empathy and creativity are highly sensitive to how a person is feeling. Studies show that when people feel under pressure, like they’re being treated unfairly, or otherwise feel under stress, the hippocampus — the part of the brain’s limbic system that is associated with emotion — is much less able to engage in empathic listening or appreciating the context of a situation. The brain, in a sense, closes down to learning or performing soft skills.
The challenge is that many workplaces have practices and processes that, often unintentionally, result in high levels of stress. Moreover, the antidotes — such as more flexible working conditions, collaborative cultures, the institution of fair processes — are not adopted quickly.
A Way Forward
Historical accounts of the effect of the Industrial Revolution show that the introduction of new technologies in that period threw many people’s lives into confusion as they struggled to reskill to meet the needs of new machines. This period, termed Engels’ Pause in Britain, resulted in deep unhappiness and a reduction in productivity before people upskilled and society was redesigned.
It is clear that there is no easy answer to this challenge. But the need is great, and the speed of implementation is crucial. Looking around, there are some exciting projects and initiatives — but to really make a difference, these must be adapted more broadly. To avoid the same kind of turmoil today that was seen during the Industrial Revolution, we need to act now.
First, it’s crucial that schools remove the textbooks and rote learning and instead focus on empathy and collaboration, as High Tech High in San Diego, California, has done.
Second, there’s a need for businesses to focus more on technological innovation to help employees develop soft skills. There are already some exciting initiatives that might provide useful models worthy of rolling out to larger numbers of people: KFC uses a training program that emphasizes customer interaction, and Fidelity Investments is experimenting with using virtual reality to upskill its call center employees in empathy and customer insight.
And third, at work, technological innovations can help reduce stress. Right now, wearables capable of tracking heart rate, skin temperature, and brain waves can pinpoint sources of stress more accurately — and therefore help people monitor the “rested brain” that is most capable of being empathic. Designing work to engage the rested brain will include minimalizing technological distraction and creating quiet periods during the day.
Some of these solutions are truly scalable, particularly those that use cost-effective technologies. But we cannot wait on the sidelines for Engels’ Pause. We must seize these ideas and invent others. If we are to retain our humanity in the age of machines, we need to bring to the fore what it is to be human.