We recently wrote about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and looked at its impact on the working environment… will it replace your job (probably not) and how AI is making customer interactions more effective and businesses more secure. As big data becomes more pervasive and data analytics allow more and more industries to understand their customers and fine-tune their product offerings, it is inevitable that all workers will be impacted, to a greater or lesser degree, by AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Therefore, what skills will be critical in the workplace of the (not-so-distant) future? What will workers need to adapt to an AI-enabled work environment?

Thinking hard about soft skills

AI is full of paradoxes. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a paradox as: “A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.” Consider software. We know its name derives from the opposite of the hardware, or physical casing, that constitutes the computer. But software is anything but soft; coding follows very rigorous, “hard” protocols. Deviate from them and the program fails. Likewise, software architects, programmers and technicians tend to be thought of as “geeky”: technical, antisocial, lacking in soft skills.

While these contradictions are mildly amusing, the real paradox of AI lies in the need to reassure customers that they are human beings, and not just a data set. Big data has given us so much information about customers and their behaviour patterns that it is easy to overlook the individuals behind the trends. In a very short period of time, consumers have become disenchanted with the “bots” that, for example, are meant to make their online shopping experience fast and easy. It is frustrating to be directed to a set of FAQs instead of being able to speak to a live human being about a query. Robots, in whatever guise, do not inspire trust the way humans can. Computers can’t give a customer precisely what she wants, only what the majority of customers want. Customers want to be shown respect and empathy ; and empathy is one quality computers can’t learn.

Social Intelligence

Therefore, a soft skill that will become increasingly valuable in the AI-enabled world is social intelligence (SI). This was originally defined by Edward Thorndike in 1920 as “the ability to understand and manage men and women and boys and girls, to act wisely in human relations”.[1] It is related to but different from emotional intelligence, which is the capability of individuals to recognise their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately. Emotional intelligence is more concerned with one’s self-awareness; social intelligence describes interpersonal activity.

Dr Ronald E Riggio, writing in Psychology Today,[2] cites six key elements of social intelligence:

  1. Verbal fluency and conversational skills: the ability to hold conversations with a wide variety of people and to be tactful and appropriate in what is said.
  2. Knowledge of social roles, rules and scripts: the capacity to move between roles appropriately; in other words to be a mother at home and a colleague in the workplace, without treating co-workers as children. Socially intelligent people are also good at the informal rules, or “social norms,” that govern social interaction.
  3. Effective listening skills: good listeners create a feeling of connection after interacting.
  4. Understanding what makes other people tick: socially intelligent people observe others and try to understand them through their words and behaviours. They display empathy. This is closely related to emotional intelligence.
  5. Role-playing and social self-efficacy: this is related to knowledge of social roles but describes the internal effect. The ability to navigate social roles makes the socially intelligent person feel comfortable with all types of people and therefore self-confident and effective.
  6. Impression management skills: a tricky quality that involves managing the way one comes across but still being authentic and genuine. This is probably the most advanced of the social intelligence skills.

SI – part of the Agility Quotient

A recent survey of hiring managers by a leading HR services provider in Canada reported that 87% of respondents believe soft skills are important in the workplace and cited SI as one of three soft skills at the core of the “agility quotient”, which is a combination of IQ and EQ that enables individuals to successfully navigate rapidly changing social, cultural and economic conditions. The other two soft skills that comprise the agility quotient are novel and adaptive thinking, or the ability to think differently through times of quick and immense change, and sense-making, or the ability to generate ideas and create new strategies from a variety of disciplines and experiences. (See our recent articles on encouraging creativity and assessing creativity in employees.)

Survey respondents also indicated that these skills are currently lacking in the workplace. At the same time, they were identified as the most important skills to have, regardless of the level of employment, industry or gender. Therefore, if workers lack agility quotient, they are not fully prepared to meet the needs of employers, and those employers…to greater or lesser extent…are using AI.

Bringing it all together

A good example of an AI application of the three skills contained in the agility quotient is decision-making. Increasingly sophisticated data analytics allow automated decision-making for a range of operational activities, theoretically leading to analytically sound, consistent actions across multiple levels and functions of an organisation. But we’ve said before that computers are incapable of empathy. Therefore, without an element of human intervention – call it governance, quality control, etc. – on the decision-making neural network, there is a very real risk of decisions being made that completely ignore their impact on the individuals they concern. This could lead to low employee morale, poor customer care, or even discrimination. AI needs the input of socially intelligent, adaptive, creative human beings to deliver all the benefits the technology is capable of delivering in the modern commercial environment.

Find out more

Do you want to know more about social intelligence and adapting to the AI-enabled world? We can help you develop the agility quotient of your employees. If you’d like to know more, contact us on 012 940 6300 or hcs@eoh.co.za.

[1] Thorndike, E.L. (1920). Intelligence and its use. Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227–235

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201407/what-is-social-intelligence-why-does-it-matter

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