AI’s effect on the workplace will not be limited merely to repetitive, production line-type jobs. Increasingly, it also enters the realm of highly trained knowledge workers. It will also affect those who manage workers currently employed in such jobs. AI likely will reshape jobs all the way up to the C-level offices. That doesn’t mean, though, that managers and executives will no longer be needed. They simply need to prepare themselves for shifts in their work responsibilities.
In my latest article Why AI Is Neither the End of Civilization nor the Beginning of Nirvana I argued that AI will bring neither a utopian nor dystopian future. It will bring a human one. Many of the skill sets needed to keep up with the rapid technological developments of AI, robots, IoT and the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution are not technological skills. Instead, they are distinctly human ones.
Whereas machines shine when it comes to situations that call for data and rules, they come nowhere close to matching humans when it comes to social skills, emotional intelligence, persuasion, collaboration or – perhaps most important of all – creativity. These social skills, not considered crucial to many jobs today, could make up more than a third of the skill sets considered essential as soon as 2020 and will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills.
Leaders of the future will have to adapt to this new reality.
What AI means for leaders
Managing operations will become obsolete. Managers and executives who today focus on trying to get incremental performance improvements out of jobs that AI can automate will find their skills being increasingly obsolete. The same goes for those who currently focus on cutting costs through outsourcing or offshoring.
The same goes for executives who pride themselves on being able to improve organizational performance through their data analysis skills. Robots and IoT can collect and generate far more data than a person can process, and advanced analytics and AI will become much better in making recommendations out of that data.
According to a 2016 survey, managers across every level of businesses spend more than half their time on administrative tasks that they rightly expect to see AI automate. Even the writing of business reports, with their heavy orientation on collating and summarizing data, likely will be taken over by AI.
Where AI will stop and human judgment will begin, however, is with those decisions that require insight beyond what AI can dig out of data. This falls into the realm of humanity.
While AI can mimic many human characteristics, it cannot include nonquantifiable qualities like organizational history, corporate culture, empathy or ethics in its assessments. While AI can run extensive simulations of future results and help leaders make more informed decisions, it lacks the ability to factor the nonquantifiable into those assessments.
It will be able to go as far as suggesting the best direction to take, but it cannot factor in variables that could make a statistically attractive decision a catastrophic mistake when rolled out to consumers. Even managers who recognize the value of the strategic thinking advantages their human intellect gives them over AI in dealing with consumers still undervalue some of the most crucial qualities they bring to the table as business becomes more AI-enabled.
Acting as motivators and mentors
As mentioned earlier, the main disruption that AI likely will cause is the need for workers at every level to expand their skill sets, both technologically and in terms of human interaction. This will require leaders to be people-focused.
Technical advances will require the workforce to retrain and acquire new, higher knowledge skills. Multiple times in their career. Across nearly all industries, one of the most impactful developments will be shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skill sets. A critical leadership task – and skill – therefore, will be to motivate people to continuously learn new skills.
It is unlikely that future organizations or factories will do the same thing in a same way for decades, as was common previously. Organizations will adopt new technologies in increasingly shorter cycles. Leaders who can guide an organization’s people through such continual changes with minimal disruptions will be extremely valuable.
Acting as innovators
To remain competitive, organizations will increasingly have to innovate. Another key leadership skill will, thus, be the ability to encourage innovation across the organization.
As the speed of innovation increases and technology innovations disrupt whole sectors, competitive intelligence, market intelligence even a bit of futurism will become key skills. Leaders will have to stay informed not only of macro trends in their industry but also in technology in general. And they will have to do more than merely report their findings to appropriate people in the organization. AI can easily do that. Instead, they will also have to develop a sense for how those trends could impact their organization, so they can recommend how to get the most out of them.
Leaders will have to make their organizations agile enough to respond quickly to trends and disruptions. Historic approaches of spending many years developing new offerings will not work in an environment so filled with disruptions. Even the largest organizations will have to adopt a startup or “lean startup” mindset.
Recognizing trends in worker motivations
Another disruption that leaders will need to recognize in today’s environment is the shift in motivations as new generations enter the workplace. Motivating past generations was tied almost exclusively to pay and other extrinsic motivators. That is no longer the case among today’s young, well-educated knowledge workers.
Working in an environment that offers them interesting challenges is rapidly becoming one of their most important motivators. Leaders need to tap into this motivation by ensuring that workers receive the challenges they seek. Encouraging their curiosity, as I described in a previous article, satisfies their need and helps the organization explore new ways to adapt to changing consumer needs and expectations.
Social responsibility, too, is rapidly rising in the list of what motivates many of the most innovative young knowledge workers. CSR (corporate social responsibility) and even the concept of “Social Enterprises” will keep growing in importance. Doing good will become a prerequisite to innovating.
Recognizing global realities
With all the innovations that emerging technology is bringing, globalization will accelerate. For example, as 3D printers become more prevalent, manufacturers will sell designs rather than finished products. Their customers will be all over the world. Breaking into new markets won’t be a multiyear, investment-heavy effort requiring specialized market research, budgeting and planning skills.
Savvy organizations will use modern strategies to introduce new offerings. Word-of-mouth, social networks and highly targeted personal marketing driven by AI-gathered data will spread the word, instead of the massive untargeted advertising campaigns of the past. With logistics requirements greatly reduced by AI and automation, the whole world becomes one market. Leaders will have to understand these trends.
With this emerging global market, leaders will also need a greater level of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Suppliers, consultants, employees and consumers will come from all over the world. International experience will become even more valuable than it is now. Diversity will become not just something that organizations grudgingly attempt, but an essential component for maintaining the broad range of perspectives and experience they need to compete in a global marketplace.
Surprisingly, many of the skill sets needed to keep up with the technology are not technological skills. Our challenge lies not so much on the technology side of AI, but on the human side. It lies not so much with deploying the right systems, but with developing the people who will work with it, so they can successfully fill the roles they will play in this new environment. Social and soft skills, collaboration and cultural sensitivity, more than technical skills, will define success. Leaders better start developing their own social skills and learning how to bring those skills out from their people if they want to remain relevant in the new reality.