Friday, October 16, 2015

Supercognitives are the Future

Don Siegel

Project Coach has always promoted the development of soft skills. But, we relabeled them supercognitives, because we thought the term soft skills devalued what they actually represent; those social and emotional capabilities that fosters self-awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, hard skills connote, higher-level instrumental capabilities that are associated with such things as executive function, cognitive processing, and more of what schools seem to value and assess with regard to academic performance. Yet, we at Project Coach believe that supercognivities deserve more than tangential recognition, as they not only require the integration of many higher level processes, but are also critical for acquiring so many of the hard skills that receive greater status.

Take communications as one example. Effective communications are key to the relationships that we form with others such as teachers, coaches, mentors, peers, and family members. These relationships often determine the sorts of information to which we have access, the direction and feedback that we receive about knowledge and skills that we wish to acquire, and the social connections that provide fulfillment in our daily lives.  Effective communications not only requires processing and assessing various sorts of information, but then thinking critically about it, and determining whether some sort of response is necessary. If so, one needs to determine what to convey, when to do so, the audience, appropriate language, affect to embed, and body language to deploy. In our view, to label such an attribute as communications, which requires such complexity of thought and action as soft seems to diminish its import in the mix of things that youth must know, be able to do, and value.

Now, in a provocative new book Humans are Underrated, Geoff Colvin, contends that the types of knowledge and skills that underlie supercognitives are not simply a means to and end, but ends in themselves. According to Colvin, it is anybody’s guess about how best to prepare youth for future jobs, as technology continues to replace many of the tasks previously performed by people. Just a few years ago computers supported what people in various high level occupations did with regard to problem-solving, judging, valuing, and managing, but Colvin asserts that computer intelligence is now increasingly able to perform many of these sorts of tasks without human colleagues, and the trend is for computers to get even better at doing so. Whether it’s driving a car, grading essays, doing legal research, or making a medical diagnosis, Colvin contends that what we once conceived of as brain tasks are becoming automated, and that humans are not able to, or will not be able to, perform many such tasks as well or as cheaply as computers. On the other hand, his central theme is that humans will always insist that certain jobs be done by other human beings, even if computers are capable of doing those jobs. Colvin makes the point that humans are social animals and the need for social interaction is a survival mechanism derived over thousands of years, and social interaction is not going away anytime soon. This is not to say that technology will become less important in the future, but that our newest challenge will be how to interact with it to make our lives better.

If humans will increasingly be replaced by computers in many of the higher and lower end traditional occupations, then what will be left for us to do? The answer that he provides is that we should be looking at those things that we … will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do. Citing various research studies related to what employers are increasingly prioritizing in hiring employees, Colvin lists relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity, and the ability to manage diverse employees. While he acknowledges that studies do not provide clear guidance on the actual tasks that workers are/will do in various industries and professions, his essential finding is that capacity for engaging in productive personal interaction is critical. On the other hand, jobs characterized as highly cognitive, requiring advanced levels of education, have been stagnant or showing a decline in demand. Colvin acknowledges that this deskilling phenomenon does seem a bit bizarre, given our deep-seated belief in the relationship between education – higher order cognitive capacity – employment, and income, but such an account is consistent with education and employment patterns of the last 15 years.

Overall, Colvin is not really saying that highly educated people will be scorned in the coming economy, but what they possess in the way of interpersonal skills may be more important than what they possess with regard to knowledge or technical skill. An example that he gives about lawyers helps clarify his major arguments. Much of their work is being taken over by computers, and the average lawyer may be facing a bleak future. Yet, lawyers who will thrive are those who are able to negotiate the non-technical aspects of law by dealing with clients whose emotions may get in the way of acting in their own best interests. As he conveys The key to differentiation lies entirely in the most deeply human realms of social interaction: understanding an irrational client, forming the emotional bonds needed to persuade that client to act rationally, rendering the sensing, feeling judgments that clients insist on getting from a human being.  These are things that computers cannot do, and will be essential to the work force of the future.

Other examples that he provides include physicians becoming increasingly dependent on computers for diagnosing illness or on robots for enacting various surgical procedures. Yet, those physicians who are more communicative and empathetic to their patients get better patient compliance to treatments, better outcomes, and fewer malpractice suits. Similarly, software companies with employees who can interact with their customers more effectively to determine what they really want, need, and feel have an edge in producing better products. Even at call centers, American Express learned that dumping standard scripts, and allowing employees to interact with customers in a more personable way resulted in more positive company-customer interactions, less employee attrition, and an increased bottom line. Not surprisingly, waiters who are better able to empathize with their diners earn nearly 20 percent more in tips, and debt collectors with better social skills recover twice as much debt than peers who are less empathetic. The military also has glommed on to this theme, and has been convinced that although combat has been increasingly automated, being able to understand the thoughts and feelings of one’s colleagues and enemies is critical. In fact even though pilots who operate out of sophisticated cockpits and may never even see their adversaries, have learned how critical it is to a mission’s success for trainees to understand the tactics, thoughts and feelings of those targeted on their computer displays.  These are just a few of the examples that Colvin writes about to convince readers that, as his title conveys, human qualities in an increasingly computerized world are underrated, and undervalued.

The gist of this is that while computers, with enhanced artificial intelligence, will be able to do many of the higher and lower end tasks now done by workers across the spectrum, those who are better able to communicate more effectively, and promote more positive social interactions and relationships will become the most valued people in society. In essence, those who will thrive in the future will be relationship workers who are less likely to be replaced by a computer than the knowledge workers of the twentieth century.

The question that we are left with is how best to prepare youth today for the relationship work that they will do in the future. Schools, for the most part, seem more focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math - the hard skills), and have not really devoted much effort to teaching SEL (Social Emotional Learning - the soft skills). Teaching SEL is where out-of-school programs, such as Project Coach, excel.  Through coaching, we teach relational work explicitly and deliberately, and if Colvin’s assessment is accurate, our kids will be greatly valued in a world in which high tech and high touch are so interdependent. It just may be that supercognivities  will be the hard skills of tomorrow.