Thursday, March 1, 2012

Six Skills That Will Remain in Demand

From the MIT Sloan Management Review eNewsletter March 1, 2012

"In the past few years, progress in information technology — in computer hardware, software and networks — has been so rapid and so surprising that many present-day organizations, institutions, policies and mind-sets are not keeping up. We used to be pretty confident that we knew the relative strengths and weaknesses of computers vis-à-vis humans. But computers have started making inroads in some unexpected areas — and this has significant implications for managers and organizations."

So write MIT Sloan professor Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, in their article in the Winter 2012 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, "Winning the Race with Ever-Smarter Machines."

While the article deals primarily with the implications of these rapid advances in information technology for organizations, Brynjolfsson and McAfee also touch on the very real implications for individuals — who may not be able, the authors point out, "to adapt as quickly as technology is advancing." What kinds of job skills are most resistant to automation? Here is a brief excerpt from Brynjolfsson and McAfee's article — highlighting six skills they expect to remain in demand in an age of ever-smarter computers:

Applied math and statistics. Some think that the era of 'big data' and powerful software means that fewer people have to master the gritty details of statistical analysis. This is deeply misguided. Knowing which analyses to conduct and how to interpret their results is more valuable than ever. We think Google chief economist Hal Varian was on to something when he said that 'the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.'

Negotiation and group dynamics. Management is one of the most durable professions, even as computers advance. It turns out that organizations need dedicated managers working with teams, advancing their agendas and working with their members.

Good writing. Computers can only generate the simplest, most formulaic prose. While few people write for a living, lots of us do at least some writing. Getting good at it is a way to stand out from the crowd — and from the machines.

Framing problems and solving open-ended problems. Computers don't know what's wrong or where the next opportunities are. Solving open-ended problems entails both perceiving the challenge and addressing it. It's a major feature of primary and secondary educational systems like Montessori, which might explain why Montessori graduates are so common among the elite of the tech industry — the masters of racing with machines.

Persuasion. Does anyone seriously think that a great salesperson will be unable to find work, even in a highly digitized economy?

Human interaction and nurturing. We are biologically wired to react to human attention and the human touch in a way that no machine can replicate. That means that jobs that involve human nurturing and interaction, such as child care and nursing, will continue to defy automation."

Not a bad list to keep in mind as you think about your own career — and, if you have children, about the career choices they may make, too. If you haven't yet read "Winning the Race with Ever-Smarter Machines," I encourage you to.

— Martha E. Mangelsdorf, Editorial Director, MIT Sloan Management Review

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