Future-Proofing Your Soft Skills

As a leader, how should I prepare for the future?

Technology advancements are rapidly changing the fundamental way an organisation works. Automation has allowed complex control systems to coordinate equipment with minimal human intervention. This saves large proportions of organisational manpower resources and enhances quality and precision of products. In addition, Internet of Things (IoT) facilitates the inter-networking of physical electronic devices with software, sensors, actuators and network connectivity to make efficient data exchange possible. Consequently, communication and synergy of execution have reached unprecedented self-sufficiency and proficiency. Last but not least, Artificial Intelligence (AI) empowered machines with phenomenal intelligence to independently manoeuvre its environment to optimise its success rate at a set goal. With its in-built logical reasoning algorithms, AI has proven accomplished at performing even mankind’s critical differentiating evolutionary function – to learn and problem solve.

With knowledge of the three key technological trends—IoT, AI and automation--what is this future that we need to prepare for?

Increasingly, the technological world is developing at an unfathomably rapid rate. Just 40 years ago, the first 0G mobile phones were similar to questionable two-way radios. Today, mobile phones serve our unending desire to connect to a crutch. On the flip side, technology has also transformed globalisation and served as an instrumental key to fast-paced transactions and efficient redistribution of resources to allow greater collaboration and international knowledge transference. With every change, there are always two sides to a coin. We can choose to harbour the bad and try as we might to resist the painful change or embrace the inevitable as a necessary human development and do our best to foresee the objective advantages and disadvantages of the coming future.

What are the soft skills that we should take up to future-proof ourselves?

The key to wholly preparing for the future changes is to stay relevant. Here are four ways to do this:

Be adaptable

To survive the change, we need to embrace it and take it in stride. With technical and mathematical skills being in increasing demand, we need to be able to unlearn and relearn the necessary skills to stay relevant in this technological era. We need to nimbly observe the changing market and, with a discerning eye, adapt to the changes in our environment. SkillsFuture is a national initiative by the Singapore government to encourage a flexible and relevant workforce that adapts to the ever-changing needs of the economy. Fundamental to evolution, adaptation has allowed only the strongest contenders to survive the test of changing times.

In relation to automation, staying adaptable will allow us to continuously be of value to the economy despite the changing landscape. The age of manual labour and repetitive routines has been replaced with machines designed for tedious round-the-clock precision. The sunset manufacturing industry has led to a large population of hard workers displaced by lights out manufacturing. Even the service industry has introduced agent-assisted automation to increase efficiency and reliability of provision. Despite the staggering numbers left structurally unemployed, the economy benefits from increased cost-efficient productivity and increased work-life balance for the employed.

On the bright side, McKinsey Quarterly 2015 reported that automation has not, in most cases, replaced employees but automated fragments of their tasks. This allows for greater efficiencies and output. Thus, people need to choose complex jobs that do not simply manage tasks following well-defined procedures that can be performed by sophisticated algorithms. The new labour force needs to constantly upgrade and reskill to fill the gaps in the evolving job market that increasingly prizes relevant skills that value-add to the technology-driven organisational structure.

Tips for the business leader:

  • Analyse the top three tasks that can readily be computerised in your job. Outsource or automate them.
  • Find underdeveloped components of your job that are currently being compromised due to lack of time and investment.
  • Look to upgrade your skills to grow these underdeveloped areas to fully invest and be more efficient in achieving your long-term goals.

Be a proactive communicator

Internet of Things (IoT) allows for virtually endless possibilities and connections to be realised. Smart cities that enhance energy efficiency and waste reduction are being made conceivable with greater interconnectedness. Other than connecting devices with each other, this giant network of connected “things” also involves people. Hence effective communication will need to take place on multiple levels – people & people, people & things and things & things. These conversations will require the right mash of soft and technical skills to ensure workplace effectiveness and minimal miscommunication.

There are a few critical components to ensuring effective communication that needs to be applied in a customised manner for the three levels of IoT communication:

  • Effective listening: this trains concentration, tolerance, sensitivity and understanding.
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Clarity and concision
  • Friendliness
  • Confidence
  • Respect
  • Open-mindedness
  • Feedback
  • Picking the right medium

It would be good for us to have genuine two-way understanding in our fast-paced information-intensive knowledge-based economy. Mastery of effective communication across these three levels is crucial to ensure that the organisation functions cohesively and optimises the benefits of seamlessly integrated communication.

Tips for the business leader:

  1. Identify the key communication channels and stakeholders in your work setting.
  2. Prioritise the goals of communication within these channels
  3. Constantly get feedback and improve on effective listening, nonverbal communication, clarity, concision, friendliness, confidence, respect and open-mindedness.

Be empathetic 

The experience of being thoughtful towards another person’s condition from their perspective is known to enhance prosocial behaviours. Empathy allows for sincere kindness and genuine warmth to take precedence in social interactions over self-serving greed.

Intelligence exhibited by machines empowers AI with the capacity to perceive its environment and take actions that optimise its chance of success at a certain goal. Proficient in learning and problem solving, AI performs multiple complex functions with ease such as speech, manipulation of high-level strategic systems, coordination of self-driving cars, intelligent routeing in content delivery networks, facilitation of military simulations and interpretation of complex data.

Posted with the extensive and intricate functionalities of AI, the working population is potentially experiencing the most significant existential threat from this form of technological advancement. Will these superhuman capabilities spell the end of the human race due to its ability to take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate that supersedes human’s biological evolution? Will these machines eventually devalue humanity? These are questions that pervade many ethical discussions – including those of Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates.

For all the progress made in social intelligence imitation, humans will always seek genuine relationships with other humans because of their innate need to belong. According to Joseph Weizenbaum, the use of AI to predominate customer service or psychotherapy will be severely misguided. The human drive for social relationships reflects an innate tendency that is adaptive and crucial for survival. Empathy-induced altruism encourages perspective taking and enables individuals to develop more satisfactory interpersonal relations in the long term. This increases cooperation in competitive situations. Hence, in order to stay relevant in the popularisation of AI, we need to work on the shortcomings of this development – to build a more human and sustainable work environment through empathy. Through enhancing the human element of any service or product through empathy, we remain relevant in the age of AI.

Tips for the business leader:

  1. Build cognitive empathy in 2 steps: perspective taking & tactical empathy.
  2. Perspective-taking: Adopting others’ psychological perspectives
  3. Tactical empathy: Deliberately use perspective-taking to achieve certain desired ends.

To really transcend these future changes, we need to, on top of staying relevant, be forward-looking.

Be socially responsible and have goal-centred thinking

This is important because business leaders need to strategise and ensure organisational sustainability and long-term success and growth. This can only be done if leaders are able to diligently work towards it with a clear plan and goal. In the ever-changing nature of the future marketplace, organisations need to have a consistent core vision that guides all strategic decisions. With new inputs and technological developments, timely strategic changes and operational policy remodelling are critical to ensuring the organisation remains relevant. However, this potentially means that organisations will be led by a stream of impulses if allowed to run without a company-wide goal.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the future of business will increasingly achieve a position of supremacy to act in key social roles over the rest of the population. Thus, they will be trusted to run the economy, influence politics and establish cultures. Businesses already are the most powerful section of society – controls the flow of resources, are voice in how the country is run and by whom. Even business interests dictate interventions abroad. Important functions that used to be independent of the market are now servants of business. The definition of success for an organisation (even healthcare and newspaper) is defined by profit growth. But this is the fault of our taste for excessive greed. Traditionally, gradual growth in wealth was perceived as part of a diversified portfolio of blessings (family, community, health). Today, cultivating the right job, religion, family and community is not worth the effort. However, the reality is that with power and leadership comes great social responsibility. Businesses will not succeed in retaining its hegemony when people realise that free market only serves the benefit of the few and does not contribute to the happiness of the majority.

Visionary leaders need to overcome hegemonic power perception because if success is only measured financially, long term plans will be shelved for short term profits; loyalty will be traded at market value; air, water and health will be allocated according to demand and supply as proven by America’s recent Trump care policy.  Businesses need to avoid this one-dimensional view and be socially and ethically responsible. Leaders need to believe in a goal that benefits not only themselves by others as well. it is such a vision that attracts the psychic energy of other people and makes them willing to work beyond the call of duty for the organisation.

Tips for the business leader:

  1. Business strategy remodelling. Incorporate social responsibility in the core of the organisation’s business model to identify the social responsibility the company has to the community

Be Creative

Lastly, we must not be bounded by limits. Existing boundaries that restrict our options only persist in current conditions. The future is honestly up to us to define. Technology advancements have empowered us with the capacity to achieve unprecedented levels of development and breakthroughs. The direction we choose to take with these newfound possibilities is up to us.  It is crucial to understand why something seems impossible under the present circumstances. Assess the constraints and find ways to overcome them. Have faith in the potential realities that we dream of. The constraints today will not be the same tomorrow.

Tips for the business leader:

  1. Encourage REM sleep cycles. Cultivate a safe environment for power naps.
  2. Foster creativity in the workplace by building a supportive, nurturing, trustworthy environment conducive to elf-actualization.
  3. Use the four Creative Profiles to achieve organisational goals
    1. Incubate (long-term development)
    2. Imagine (breakthrough ideas)
    3. Improve (incremental adjustments)
    4. Invest (short-term goals)

Thus, the answer to this fourth industrial revolution is forward-looking relevance.

In essence, the future is bright and promising if we move progress with forward-looking relevance. Soft skills need to be complemented with hard technical skills. We should seek not just to prepare for but also transcend future challenges with these five cornerstone skills.

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