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Why Social Skills Are Trumping Cognitive Skills

2015 November 15

From roughly the time of Jesus to Napoleon, life changed little. Then the industrial revolution replaced muscle power with steam power and human existence was transformed. Incomes, life expectancy and population, which had long been locked in Malthusian conflict, began to reinforce each other and rise in tandem.

It’s hard to overestimate how profound that change was. Prosperity, rather than being tied to land, became a function of the efficient use of capital. Physical strength was rendered largely irrelevant and education became a ticket to a better life. Technology, in effect, created the modern world.

We’re at a similar point in history today as intelligent machines are beginning to replace human cognitive power. This revolution, much like the industrial revolution that came before it, will change the basic rules of success that we’ve come to know. Rather than knowledge and intelligence, the ability to collaborate will be the defining competitive attribute.

The Rise Of The Knowledge Worker

The industrial revolution created truly incredible gains in efficiency. By pairing men with machines, rather than working livestock, productivity exploded. This, in turn, led to enormous social change, such as migration to cities, an end to child labor and the rise of public education.

It also changed how we organize work. Ideas from people like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford showed that competitiveness could be drastically increased by organizing the factory floor more intelligently and implementing new techniques. Firms like Kodak and General Electric founded corporate labs to dream up new components and products.

It was these developments that led Peter Drucker to introduce the concept of the knowledge economy, where workers were not valued for their labor as much as they were for their expertise. By the 1950’s, firms were investing in corporate universities and other forms of training. Human capital began to outstrip physical capital.

We take this all for granted today, but a century ago, when most jobs were relatively simple and few people had anything beyond a very basic education, it would have seemed positively radical. The next shift, however, could possibly be even more transformational.

The Information Economy And The Media Revolution

Knowledge and information are often confused. Knowledge is highly personal. I might know how to swim or how to make a great soufflé, but can’t easily transfer that knowledge to another. Information, on the other hand, is highly fungible and can be transferred efficiently, with minimal loss. What’s more, unlike physical products, the value information does not diminish with use.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two economists at MIT, point out that information makes it possible to create scale without mass, because it allows business processes to be replicated nearly instantaneously and with perfect fidelity across an enterprise. This creates a fundamental shift in economics from the old economy of physical products.

High quality informational products also don’t incur any greater marginal costs than low quality informational products do. Google’s algorithms, for example, are just as easily replicated across servers as anybody else’s, which is something you can’t say about physical products, like luxury cars or watches.

What drives the information economy is media, which Marshal McLuhan called “extensions of man” because they allow us to extend our senses much farther and deeper than we can achieve organically. TV, for example, brings faraway events into our living rooms, just as the Internet allows us to share information in a way that transcends the limits of time and space.

It is that ability to extend our cognitive reach, much like the industrial revolution extended our physical reach, that is what’s driving change today.

The Rise Of The Robots

What’s new about the world evolving now is the emergence of informational products—both algorithms and physical robots—that also contain knowledge. Machines like IBM’s Watson can compile mountains of information, recognize patterns and perform analysis.  Now, even in the cognitive realm, the work of humans is being replaced by machines.

It’s impossible to overstate how important this development is. A typical teenager today has more access to information—as well as true knowledge—than a genius ensconced in a major institution a generation ago. Samuel Arbesman  even predicts that computers might soon be able to make discoveries that we can’t even understand, much less uncover ourselves.

Informational technology today is replacing human cognitive power much like steam power, the internal combustion engine and electricity replaced physical power during the industrial revolution. This is true not just in basic jobs like bank tellers and travel agents, but also advanced professions like medicine, law and creative work.

No one is safe anymore. So in a sense, we’re all Luddites now.

It’s No Longer What You Know, But How You Collaborate

Now that machines are increasingly replacing humans in doing cognitive tasks—work that was highly prized in the last century—the obvious question to ask is what will humans do? Geoff Colvin, argues in his book Humans Are Underrated that the answer is to work with other humans. In other words, the social tasks that machines are almost comically bad at.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of having to deal with automated customer service, but the flaws in computers go much deeper than that. For example, artificial intelligence systems like IBM’s Watson can process medical information and suggest diagnoses, but can’t effectively interact with and counsel patients.

And while computers can do low level tasks very efficiently, like legal discovery and summarizing box scores they still can’t do socially driven tasks, like connecting with a jury, writing an impassioned plea or offering support to a colleague. Only humans can successfully deal with other humans and, more than ever, the high level work is being done in teams.

In truth, this new era will not be solely human driven or machine driven, but a collaboration between humans and machines. Consider that when a freestyle chess tournament that included both humans and machines was organized, the winner was not a chess master or a supercomputer, but two amateurs running three simple programs in parallel.

And that’s why the new economy really is a social economy. The future belongs not to the strongest or the smartest, but those who can collaborate—with humans and machines—most effectively.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. November 18, 2015

    Great reflection – I ask myself “What is essentially human? What can we do that is very hard to be outsourced/turned into a recipe/automated?” It is collaboration and the special way a human being can get more out of another person through believing in them, asking them for more, praising good behaviour, reprimanding mediocrity… These are the skills that kids need to learn in school… all information is online already.

  2. November 22, 2015

    Hmmmm. I have to feel something is missing. You mention knowledge, but I never saw mention of understanding. It was intelligence that brought us this far. I suspect it is intelligence that will be the most important behavior in the future. Sure, at the root of that is social behavior, but skip cognition and you are skipping much of intelligence. Well, maybe it doesn’t look so well for understanding anyway. For about 2500 years, we have used a discipline for using the unique gifts of the mind. The intellect can create and absorb ideas, but only critical thinking can evaluate their truth. In a time when books were common, so was critical thinking. Video, while now far from a vast wasteland it started as, does not teach the important skill of critical thinking. Never is one walked through the thoughts and process of problem solving that the author relates for their character. Those techniques are completely drowned out in the noise of the cell phone. The amazing potential for teaching represented by virtual reality is in the showing, not in the process of intellectual discovery and reason.
    Critical Thinking was basically the third great creation of the Greek Philosophers. They needed it because of the second great creation, Rhetoric. Oh they had persuasive speaking down and it’s power was great in that time and political milleau, but Rhetoric is notoriously not the truth. Really, it is often used to manipulate the truth, so Critical Thinking had to be developed to verify what was true.
    True, intelligence largely evolved initially for social skills, but humans use tools and Critical Thinking is the most powerful tool of intelligence there is. Would you discount it? Could that be the modern age? It does seem that people have knowledge of status, fashion and how to do their job, but their understanding is limited. Many seem gullible and susceptible to… the persuasion of Rhetoric. Actually, I think that understanding of truth and the world, as well as of people is a good thing. Without it, civilization will not endure those that use rhetoric as their chosen tool.

  3. November 24, 2015

    This distinction between information and knowledge and also human judgment is captured very well here. It really forms that basis for how we’ll exist as a society in the future. I touch on this very topic in a LinkedIn blog.

  4. Eli Cummings permalink
    November 24, 2015

    Since the formation of societies as an outgrowth of the agricultural revolution where allegiance has not been based upon familial connection but rather to an impersonal authority, humans have lived in an environment that has created selective pressures for those with social skills so this is something most humans already possess.

    The notion that team collaboration is something new is false. There have always been such teams within organizations from small to large. All you are really talking about is a group dedicated to a common purpose the importance of which subsumes individual goals and desires within a larger context but nobody expects Navy seals (a highly collaborative team) to win a war.

    The only reason something seems new is because of ignorance of the past.

    I would suggest the you revisit the writings of Peter Drucker.

  5. November 24, 2015

    Thanks Brian.

    Good luck with Expert Calling Network.

    – Greg

  6. November 24, 2015

    Thanks for your input Eli.

    – Greg

  7. November 9, 2017

    What a refreshing perspective! I live in Seattle and sometimes it seems that the technology industry is eating up everything. Nice to hear another side.

    I have noticed that social skills are like muscles that can be built and developed. They can also atrophy without regular practice. During workshops, I’ve taught how to get out of your comfort zone to build them. It amazes me how much more lit up people afterward. It is just like they got a workout.

  8. November 10, 2017

    Great point Jenn! Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

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