ai at work

AI and Jobs: The Human Angle

As artificial intelligence (AI) takes hold, the organizations that gain a competitive edge will be those that become more human.

By Neal Ungerleider | 10 min read

In a future teeming with robots and artificial intelligence, humans seem to be on the verge of being crowded out. But in reality, the opposite is true.


To be successful, organizations need to become more human than ever.


Organizations that focus only on automation will automate away their competitive edge. The most successful will focus instead on skills that set them apart and that can’t be duplicated by AI or machine learning. Those skills can be summed up in one word: humanness.


You can see it in the numbers. Demand for jobs that require social skills has risen at twice the rate of other types of jobs since 1980.


AI is in its infancy, which means that it cannot yet come close to duplicating our most human skills. Stefan van Duin and Naser Bakhshi, consultants at professional services company Deloitte, break down artificial intelligence into two types: narrow and general. Narrow AI is good at specific tasks, such as playing chess or identifying facial expressions. General AI, which can learn and solve complex, multifaceted problems the way a human being does, exists today only in the minds of futurists.


The only thing narrow artificial intelligence can do is automate. It can’t empathize. It can’t collaborate. It can’t innovate. Those abilities, if they ever come, are still a long way off. In the meantime, AI’s biggest value is in augmentation. When human beings work with AI tools, the process results in a sort of augmented intelligence. This augmented intelligence outperforms the work of either human beings or AI software tools on their own.





AI-powered tools will be the partners that free employees and management to tackle higher-level challenges.


Those challenges will, by default, be more human and social in nature because many rote, repetitive tasks will be automated away. Companies will find that developing fundamental human skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, within the organization will take on a new importance. These skills can’t be automated and they won’t become process steps for algorithms anytime soon.


Giving AI a Moral Compass

To make artificial intelligence behave ethically, humans have to take the lead.

In a world where technology change is constant and unpredictable, those organizations that make the fullest use of uniquely human skills will win. These skills will be used in collaboration with both other humans and AI-fueled software and hardware tools. The degree of humanness an organization possesses will become a competitive advantage.


This means that today’s companies must think about hiring, training, and leading differently. Most of today’s corporate training programs focus on imparting specific knowledge that will likely become obsolete over time.


Instead of hiring for portfolios of specific subject knowledge, organizations should instead hire – and train – for more foundational skills, whose value can’t erode away as easily.


Research has found that the most valuable of these social and foundational skills include social perceptiveness, active listening, speaking, negotiation, persuasion, and critical thinking – giving lie to the dismissive term soft skills. They’re not soft; they’re human.





That’s because technical skills will become more perishable as AI shifts the pace of technology change from linear to exponential. Employees will require constant retraining over time. By contrast, human skills, such as interpersonal communication and project management, will remain consistent over the years.


Increasingly, tech employees can’t just be good programmers and statisticians; they also need to be intuitive and inquisitive and have good communication skills. We don’t expect all these qualities from our engineering graduates nor from most of our employees.


But we need to start.

From self-help to self-skills

Even if most schools and employers have yet to see it, employees are starting to understand that their future viability depends on improving their innately human qualities. The second most popular course on Coursera, an online learning platform, is called Learning How to Learn. Created by the University of California, San Diego, the course is essentially a master class in human skills: students learn everything from memory techniques to dealing with procrastination and communicating complicated ideas.

Teaching employees how to make behavioral changes has always seemed the province of private therapists, not corporate trainers. But that outlook is changing. 

Although there is a longstanding assumption that social skills are innate, nothing is further from the truth. As the popularity of Learning How to Learn attests, human skills – everything from learning skills to communication skills to empathy – can and, indeed, must be taught.


These human skills are integral for training workers for a workplace where artificial intelligence and automation are part of the daily routine. The good news is that learning human skills is not completely divorced from how work is structured today. Many employees are simply unaware that when they are working on complicated software or hardware projects, they are using empathy, strategic problem solving, intuition, and interpersonal communication.

Being more human is hard

Making these skills more than instinctive and spontaneous will require conscious effort from employees. Employers will need to nurture these behaviors through training and example.


Attempting to teach employees how to make behavioral changes has always seemed off-limits to organizations – the province of private therapists, not corporate trainers. But that outlook is changing. As science gains a better understanding of how the human brain works, many behaviors that affect employees on the job are understood to be universal and natural rather than individual.

Human skills 101

As neuroscience has improved our understanding of the brain, human skills have become increasingly quantifiable – and teachable.


Though the term soft skills has managed to hang on in the popular lexicon, our understanding of these human skills has increased to the point where they aren’t soft at all: they are a clearly definable set of skills that are crucial for organizations in the AI era.

  • Active listening: Paying close attention when receiving information and drawing out more information than received in normal discourse
  • Critical thinking: Gathering, analyzing, and evaluating issues and information to come to an unbiased conclusion
  • Problem solving: Finding solutions to problems and understanding the steps used to solve the problem
  • Decision-making: Weighing the evidence and options at hand to determine a specific course of action
  • Monitoring: Paying close attention to an issue, topic, or interaction in order to retain information for the future
  • Coordination: Working with individuals and other groups to achieve common goals
  • Social perceptiveness: Inferring what others are thinking by observing them
  • Time management: Budgeting and allocating time for projects and goals and structuring schedules to minimize conflicts and maximize productivity
  • Creativity: Generating ideas, concepts, or inferences that can be used to create new things
  • Curiosity: Desiring to learn and understand new or unfamiliar concepts
  • Imagination: Conceiving and thinking about new ideas, concepts, or images
  • Storytelling: Building narratives and concepts out of both new and existing ideas
  • Experimentation: Trying out new ideas, theories, and activities
  • Ethics: Practicing rules and standards that guide conduct and guarantee rights and fairness
  • Empathy: Identifying and understanding the emotional states of others
  • Collaboration: Working with others, coordinating efforts, and sharing resources to accomplish a common project
  • Resiliency: Withstanding setbacks, avoiding discouragement, and persisting toward a larger goal

Resistance to change, for example, is now known to result from an involuntary chemical reaction in the brain known as the fight-or-flight response, not from a weakness of character. Scientists and psychologists have developed objective ways of identifying these kinds of behaviors and have come up with universally applicable ways for employees to learn how to deal with them.


Organizations that emphasize such individual behavioral traits as active listening, social perceptiveness, and experimentation will have both an easier transition to a workplace that uses AI tools and more success operating in it.


Framing behavioral training in ways that emphasize its practical application at work and in advancing career goals helps employees feel more comfortable confronting behavioral roadblocks without feeling bad about themselves or stigmatized by others. It also helps organizations see the potential ROI of investing in what has traditionally been dismissed as touchy-feely stuff.





In fact, offering objective means for examining inner behaviors and tools for modifying them is more beneficial than just leaving the job to employees. For example, according to research by psychologist Tasha Eurich, introspection, which is how most of us try to understand our behaviors, can actually be counterproductive.


Human beings are complex creatures. There is generally way too much going on inside our minds to be able to pinpoint the conscious and unconscious behaviors that drive us to act the way we do. We wind up inventing explanations – usually negative – for our behaviors, which can lead to anxiety and depression, according to Eurich’s research.


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How knowing one’s self helps the organization

Self-awareness is a powerful tool for improving performance at both the individual and organizational levels. Self-aware people are more confident and creative, make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. They are also less likely to lie, cheat, and steal, according to Eurich.


There are two types of self-awareness, writes Eurich. One is having a clear view inside of one’s self: one’s own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses. The second is understanding how others view us in terms of these same categories.


Interestingly, while we often assume that those who possess one type of awareness also possess the other, there is no direct correlation between the two. In fact, just 10% to 15% of people have both, according to a survey by Eurich. That means that the vast majority of us must learn one or the other – or both.


Gaining self-awareness is a process that can take many years. But training that gives employees the opportunity to examine their own behaviors against objective standards and gain feedback from expert instructors and peers can help speed up the journey. Just like the conflict management course, there are many ways to do this in a practical context that benefits employees and the organization alike.


For example, SAP also offers courses on building self-confidence, increasing trust with peers, creating connections with others, solving complex problems, and increasing resiliency in the face of difficult situations – all of which increase self-awareness in constructive ways. These human-skills courses are as popular with our employees as the hard-skill courses in new technologies or new programming techniques.


Depending on an organization’s size, budget, and goals, learning programs like these can include small-group training, large lectures, online courses, licensing of third-party online content, reimbursement for students to attain certification, and many other models.




Human skills are the constant

Automation and artificial intelligence will change the workplace in unpredictable ways. One thing we can predict, however, is that human skills will be needed more than ever.


The connection between conflict resolution skills, critical thinking courses, and the rise of AI-aided technology might not be immediately obvious. But these new AI tools are leading us down the path to a much more human workplace.


Employees will interact with their computers through voice conversations and image recognition. Machine learning will find unexpected correlations in massive amounts of data but empathy and creativity will be required for data scientists to figure out the right questions to ask. Interpersonal communication will become even more important as teams coordinate between offices, remote workplaces, and AI aides.


While the future might be filled with artificial intelligence, deep learning, and untold amounts of data, uniquely human capabilities will be the ones that matter. Machines can’t write a symphony, design a building, teach a college course, or manage a department. The future belongs to humans working with machines, and for that, you need human skills.

Meet the Authors

Neal Ungerleider
Independent Writer | Business and Technology

Further reading

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