Bots, Creativity, and the Value of Human Skillsets

The skills that make us human will be at a premium in the new age of automation

March 14, 2017 | Denise Gifford

Today, as almost every day, I was asked by a website to prove that I’m human. You’ve probably had the same experience: in order to access a webpage, you must perform a task that only a human can do, like identifying photos that are related to each other or deciphering blurry numbers and letters. It’s a way to show that you’re not a bot, and that you should be allowed entry. The site I mentioned had a notice next to the login area that said “prove your humanity.”

But it’s becoming more challenging to distinguish the bots from the humans. Increasingly, bots and other automation can perform activities that were traditionally in the realm of humankind. An example is the customer service chatbot. Designed to communicate via natural language, chatbots are software-driven interlocutors commonly used by retailers and service companies to interact with customers. Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and even fast food chains like Taco Bell and Pizza Hut have recently introduced, or are now testing, chatbots. Taco Bell’s version, TacoBot, will greet you by name, answer questions, make recommendations, take orders, and, according to the company’s press release, is “fully equipped with the sharp and witty personality you’d expect from Taco Bell.”

But many customer interactions are more complex, and are handled better by humans. As noted in a recent article from McKinsey & Company, “retailing also requires cognitive and social skills. Advising customers which cuts of meat or what color shoes to buy requires judgment and emotional intelligence. We calculate that 47 percent of a retail salesperson’s activities have the technical potential to be automated—far less than the 86 percent possible for the sector’s bookkeepers, accountants, and auditing clerks.”

In other words, jobs involving the most processes will be at most risk, including “white collar” jobs in insurance, healthcare, and financial services. The jobs that continue to be available to humans will evolve, beginning to emphasize the types of skills, like intuition, empathy, and creativity, that simply can’t be automated.

During my many years of observing business courses implemented by my company, I’ve noticed that participants are most comfortable with process skills — the skills that are now being automated. These same people struggled with the skills essential to conversation and nuanced communication. I have seen many process-smart people fall apart when asked to do a role play. This type of person-to-person exercise gives them nowhere to hide, and all of their human insecurities and inhibitions are suddenly center stage. They have to dig deep into who they are as a person and how they relate to others, which can be uncomfortable. This type of training involves communication, empathy, intuition, and self-awareness, which can be difficult for some people.

But building confidence with these types of skills — the kind that make us uniquely human — is exactly what’s needed to thrive in the future work world. We will, after all, be part of a team: humanity + automation. According to author Laurent Haug: “No one really knows which jobs will be automated in the future. But one thing is clear: as machines become more pervasive, so too do the humans who teach and interact with them. As we’ve already seen in the airline business, autopilot didn’t put pilots out of a job; instead it foreshadowed an increasing collaboration between human and machine on complex tasks.”

What types of human skills will be important to this synergy between humans and automation? The top skills needed will be complex problem solving, creativity, people management, and critical thinking. Many other skills, like negotiating, might be more automated in the future, according to futurists. But even so, there will be human elements to such skills that cannot be automated, such as the emotional intelligence needed to negotiate effectively.

And there’s something else that humans can still do better than machines: innovate. In fact, idea generation and innovation will be increasingly required and valued, because much of what will happen in the future of automation has not yet been dreamed. Innovation will be needed to imagine the possibilities of how humans will interact with and benefit from automation.

So what should we be doing to prepare for the future of work? I believe that now is the time to seek out opportunities to develop and deepen our skills. That might mean going out on a limb and trying something new. It’s time to read, learn, take courses, and seek opportunities to practice the human skills that automation can’t duplicate, like critical thinking and creativity. It’s a chance to strengthen our abilities to communicate and innovate. Because it is by tapping into and leveraging our humanity that we will get the most out of automation, and create for ourselves the careers of the future.

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  • About The Author
  • As co-founder of InfoWorks® International, Denise Gifford has worked with clients worldwide to provide consulting and training in key business competencies such as project management, leadership, sales and marketing, finance, process improvement, and communication. Prior to leading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management, and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.