How can you succeed in a digital world?

Creativity and curiosity are among the capabilities to develop


How can we adapt to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace? By focusing on the knowledge and skills to succeed in an increasingly digital world.

Computer scientists are seeking to build machines that can simulate the qualities that make us human. It’s tempting to view this as an arms race between humans and machines – a race that the machines often seem to be winning. Computers can now beat humans at chess, Jeopardy and Go, and they are catching up in image-recognition, medical diagnosis, debating and driving. But this competitive framing misses the point, for three reasons.

First, winning a game like chess is very different from “winning” in business. A game has pre-defined rules and a single winner. Business success is as much about breaking the rules as following them and there are often many winners. Harrods and John Lewis don’t compete with Amazon by copying its strategy – they deliberately play up their distinctive attributes, such as reputation, service, exclusivity and quality.

Second, we don’t know which domains of human expertise will be conquered next. It turns out that computers are good at difficult tasks and comparatively hopeless at easy ones.

‘How can human intelligence be combined with AI to achieve the most effective business outcomes?’

So, don’t get sidetracked by tales of AI gaining supremacy over humans. It’s the wrong angle. The smarter questions to ask are: how can human intelligence be combined with artificial intelligence to achieve the most effective business outcomes? And what are the distinctive human qualities that computers really struggle with?

Creativity and curiosity are key. Every story of business success starts with some sort of creative leap; an individual who deliberately defied conventional wisdom or a surprising technological breakthrough.

We have trained computers to be creative – they can write musical scores and paint pictures – but only within the parameters they have been given. If you want genuine, out-of-the-box creativity, you need human involvement. You need to find the contrarians who delight in doing things in a non-rational way. You also need managers who know how to get the best out of these individuals.

Most customers still value traditional human relationships. For example, while the established retail banks are pushing hard into online and mobile banking, there are fast growing “challenger” banks opening new branches and focusing on the personal touch – Handelsbanken in Sweden, Metro Bank in the UK, Capitec in South Africa. In the investment management industry, roboadvisers are cheaper and often better at stock-picking than humans, but most clients still value discussing their investment needs with an empathetic human.

Critical thinking is also essential. We all need a solid understanding of how AI works. We don’t have to become computer scientists, but we need to know enough about the algorithms and “deep learning” capabilities of computers to be able to interpret their outputs – and to understand their limits. If you understand the algorithm, you can legitimately overrule it when appropriate. If you don’t, you are trapped – a slave to technology, not its master.

The third reason is that making good judgments involves weighing up different types of information and managing the trade-offs that need to be made in a given context. It requires self-awareness on the part of the decision makers, so that they understand their own biases.

And it requires good interpersonal skills, such as collaboration, to ensure different perspectives are taken on board. These are all deeply human capabilities that AI will always struggle with.

Homing in on our distinctively human qualities, and our capacity to get the most out of the smart machines that surround us, gives us the potential for a competitive edge in tomorrow’s AI-driven world – which is good for us as individuals and good for the companies we work for.

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