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In an AI Future, Soft Skills Matter

Process and technology need something computers can't provide--people.
By Dan Peltier

Automation is affecting many industries and functions and is causing many leaders to question their employees’ preparedness for the customer experiences of the future. Almost every CEO has digital business transformation as a top priority. But digital transformation is not all about technology. It is a new way of thinking and requires a different skillset--it is people, process and technology. 

Eleanor Roosevelt famously wrote in her final book, “Tomorrow is Now,” that “it is today that we must create the world of the future.” Roosevelt’s plea was for democracy’s survival, but her words also resonate with today’s digital revolution.

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You say you want a revolution

The first industrial revolution in the West introduced the steam engine and mechanization, the second was a phase of rapid standardization and industrialization paving the way for mass production, while the third revolution gave the world computing power beyond our wildest dreams through electronics and microprocessors.

We are well advanced in the fourth industrial revolution–the digital revolution–and perhaps at the cusp of the fifth one: the AI revolution, said Deepa Mahidhara, director of data science and analytics at Publicis Sapient and based in Washington, D.C. It took nearly two centuries to progress from the first to third revolutions, but only a couple of decades to shift from fourth to fifth. 

At the dawn of the 2020s, we’ve seen how jobs have evolved to handle automation robotics and AI and, in turn, create more experiences. “The digital revolution that we are in today has created a profound sense of global connectedness, and has brought about long-term productivity and efficiency gains,” said Mahidhara. “However, as with every previous industrial revolution, it has resulted in disruptions in the labor market. This has forced many industries to re-train their workforces with the skills and tools needed to succeed in an ever-changing economy.”

A newly skilled workforce will dramatically transform the customer experience. But perhaps the most important skills necessary for that transformation–critical thinking and problem solving–have little to do with technology. As technology evolves, it increasingly makes more sense to know how to think about and solve for big picture problems rather than become entrenched in certain software or solutions that are eventually rendered obsolete.

Recent U.S. jobs reports, for example, signify how the future has already arrived. The transportation and mobility industry has faced doomsday predictions for years given the threat of automation and trade disruptions. But the industry was a bright spot for U.S. economy in September 2019, adding 16,000 transportation and warehouse jobs. The fastest-growing occupation in transportation is software engineering, followed by package handlers and operational specialists, according to LinkedIn data.

The transportation and mobility industry added 16,000 transportation and warehouse jobs in September. The fastest-growing occupation in transportation is software engineering, followed by package handlers and operational specialists.

LinkedIn data

Complement vs. conquer

Automation and artificial intelligence impact human labor in six basic tendencies, which The Brookings Institution laid out in a report earlier this year, including that automation substitutes for tasks, not jobs. The number of tasks listed in job postings that are more suitable for AI dropped 46 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to a 2019 analysis of more than 170 million job postings from 2010 to 2017 by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. That means tasks that are more likely to be done by AI are disappearing from employers’ job requirements more often than those more likely to be done by a person.

Another tendency is that automation can increase demand for goods and create jobs. While autonomous trucking is being tested, for instance, the rapid growth of online retail and AI requires more humans to get behind the wheel to keep pace with delivery needs.

Albeit, automation will affect about 25 percent of U.S. jobs in the coming decades, Brookings found, but automation will likely complement rather than replace many of those jobs. And new jobs will emerge requiring new skills that the workforce will adapt to.

How hospitality is responding

Consider hotels and restaurants, another industry that’s long feared the specter of automation, which added more than 50,000 U.S. jobs in October 2019. Data show guests want more technology at hotels like self-service kiosks when speed-of-service is top of mind.

What if automation allowed quick service restaurants to slow down and think of local food trends in communities to identify new menu items to better serve customers, while leaving food preparation and simple tasks to automation? Workers could be retrained to use technology to engage with customers who aren’t sure what to order, or to explain new offerings that are popular in their area.

Some quick service restaurants have already moved in this direction. Hosts, or employees who help with customer service, have replaced cashiers in restaurants that have implemented self-service kiosks that create a personalized order experience. Cashiers historically could have swapped jobs with anyone in the kitchen, but host and kitchen jobs require different skill sets. 

This is where employees’ emotional intelligence skills training comes into play to be able to read body language and empathize with customers, said a former QSR executive familiar with how AI and other technologies have affected job skills and the customer experience.

“As with every previous industrial revolution, it has resulted in disruptions in the labor market. This has forced many industries to re-train their workforces with the skills and tools needed to succeed in an ever-changing economy.”

Deepa Mahidhara , Director of data science and analytics at Publicis Sapient

"Right now, you're under pressure when you order at a cashier or through the drive thru, but if you're undecided it's an even more pressurized situation,” the executive said. “Your average spend is lower when you're under pressure. Kiosks give you more time and help you order more and spend more. Self-ordering kiosks also reduce the number of cashiers in store. What some QSRs have done is instead of saving head count, they now have a hostess in the lobby. These jobs are temporary as we transition from one technology to another."

The drive thru, the source of 50 percent of quick service restaurants’ revenue, according to Restaurant Dive, has become completely automated at some restaurants. An employee only steps in if the AI malfunctions or couldn’t understand a customer.

“Many organizations have already invested in skills and key building blocks that allow for AI-driven personalization at scale. Prompted in part by Amazon’s focus on 1:1 personalization, brand marketers in other customer-centric organizations are upping their personalization game, and investing in more tech talent including experience designers and data scientists,” said Deepa Mahidhara. “AI technologies are increasingly being leveraged to make staffing predictions, optimize inventory levels and enhance customer experience through voice ordering, image recognition and menu customization.”

Launching loyalty programs, still a novelty at many quick service restaurants, is a natural next step with new and improved kiosks and drive thrus in place. Many quick service restaurants have a franchise model and adopting loyalty programs and new technology depends on franchisees’ willingness to do so and equip employees with skills needed to create personalized experiences.

As journalist Kristen Hawley points out in her Expedite newsletter, which covers the restaurant technology industry, it’s important to remember humans still power restaurants. If you want employees to feel more empowered and motivated, don’t force them to adopt new technology, Hawley writes. Instead, let franchisees raise their hands to test new solutions and others will follow, and customers will notice higher morale and have a better experience.

Robots and AI can make our lives easier but that doesn’t mean they make our lives fuller. Customers are looking to feel inspired and better connected to the world around them, and for now, that still requires a human to help them understand how to get there.