Sharpen your soft skills – the future is human

The era of information has made us all information professionals, and our value as an employee is based on our capability to manage information. Soon, however, technology will be so advanced that we are no longer needed to manage information – machines will do it better. According to futurist Perttu Pölönen, it is high time that we start focusing on skills that no machine can learn – the human elements.

According to futurist Perttu Pölönen, we are heading for a radical change in work. And that is nothing new: mankind has already experienced a couple of revolutions that totally changed the nature of work. The first one had to do with the development of agriculture, turning us into farmers instead of hunter-gatherers.

This period of agricultural dominance lasted for thousands of years, in fact, until the middle of the 19th century when the industrial revolution took place – transforming us from farmers into factory workers. And suddenly, less than two hudred years years later, we are in the middle of an information revolution, and almost all of us are working as information professionals – in one way or another.

As the pace of change has accelerated, it is likely that the next revolution is just around the corner. What might that be? Will automation, robots, and artificial intelligence do all the work and kick us out of our offices? Or is there a role for us human beings, a role based on, well, our humanity? Very much so, believes Pölönen. In fact, according to him, what we will face next is the human revolution that will make us creative problem solvers. Problems will not go away but solving them will require a new kind of thinking as well as creativity.

“We cannot really know what the future looks like, but one thing is sure – there will be more changes happening in the future than in the past. Rather than trying to identify all the things that will change, we should focus on what won’t and invest in the skills that will endure. We are humans so let us make the most out of our humanity and soft skills,” Pölönen suggests.

With soft skills Pölönen means capabilities such as creativity, humility, curiosity, courage, humor, self-awareness, resilience, and critical thinking – to mention some.

Combining the best of man and machine

In the era of rapidly developing technology that is penetrating all of society, we need to sharpen our focus on the age-old human capabilities, like empathy, compassion, and humanity. Technology does not have these capabilities, a machine cannot interpret contexts, it does not understand information that is not defined “properly”, like numbers are, it does not have the silent knowledge regarding culture, history or social norms that people have gathered by interacting with each other. Instead, a machine is extremely effective in analytics, and it can handle vast amounts of data – its capacity is unlimited.

We cannot beat the binary system so let us concentrate on our own unique human elements and use them more consciously.

“These differences between man and machine also define the division of work in problem solving between them. We cannot beat the binary system so let us concentrate on our own unique human elements and use them more consciously,” Pölönen says. 

When both man and machine “use” their best capabilities and work together to solve problems, the solutions will probably be the best possible ones. There is research suggesting that when making pricing decisions in a B-to-B sales process, the best results are reached when the automated pricing system decides on the prices in the “normal” cases and the best sales experts handle the pricing of the more unique or unordinary quotes. Why? Humans are unpredictable and thus they are also more skilled in handling unpredictability. It is an advantage when it comes to meeting new clients, for example, and to understanding a client’s needs and willingness to pay.

New kind of leaders and experts

In the era of the information revolution, the work-related capabilities of an expert or a leader that are appreciated most are related to how well an individual manages information and data. In the future, when information management is more and more done by technology, it will be the so-called soft skills that are crucial for success at work, believes Pölönen.

What we will face next is the human revolution that will make us creative problem solvers.

“This will also change the focus of leadership and leadership skills from ‘head’ to ‘heart’. What makes this transformation so difficult for companies is that you cannot really measure the soft skills and their impact on the results of an organization. But just because you cannot measure them, doesn’t mean that they do not exist,” Pölönen explains.

Another thing that is already changing is our notion of what an expert is. We are used to thinking that it takes years of experience in a certain field to reach expert status, but the rapid pace of technological development is changing who can be defined as an expert. Take social media, for example. The best expert in this area may very likely be a very young digital native YouTuber – vastly different from our traditional notion of an expert. In fact, people under 25 years don’t even remember time before the world wide web. Moreover, 30 years ago being civilized was defined in a different way than it is today. These are some of the reasons why Pölönen sees it very important that younger and older generations engage in actual dialogue and work together to keep up with the rapid change.

“For us living in northern Europe where there is a ‘silver tsunami’ just around the corner, it may come as a surprise that every second individual in the world is under 30 years old. So, it is high time to engage and hire young people and take them along on the journey towards the human revolution – in my opinion, this is vital.”

Pursuing something better

Pölönen is concerned that we are so eager to adopt new technologies, such as digitalizing operations, without thinking critically about their real impacts. He would like to see a world where technologies are used to gain something that is genuinely better.

“Optimizing something or making it more efficient or faster – only because we can – does not necessarily mean that it will become better. It is sad that, in many cases, we value speed over depth. I think we should keep in mind that the same things that separate us from the computers or artificial intelligence are the same things that make us happy – the human elements,” reflects Pölönen.

Text Sanna Haanpää-Liukko

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Who is Perttu Pölönen?

Perttu Pölönen is a futurist, inventor, and author. He has studied future technologies at Singularity University, based at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, co-founded an edtech company in Myanmar, written two books, and won the EU’s biggest science competition for youth. In 2018 MIT Tech Review honored him among the 35 Innovators Under 35 in Europe. His third book, Future Skills, will be published in the USA in September 2021.