The Competitive Advantage of non-replicable 21st Century Skills

If we look at the last 10 years and how we’ve been talking about the “Future of Work”, we notice we have always used the same mantra: “Soon, AI and automation will be so advanced that they will replace humans in executing specific tasks” – and as a consequence we’ve kept talking about how work will need to be different and, with that, our skills in the near future.

The problem is that this is not the future anymore, it is the present, so whatever changes, upskilling, reskilling we wanted to make needs to be done now.

So, where to start?

First of all you have the basic skills that are needed to work with AI – simply put this means getting familiar with the tools and knowing how to operate them.

But apart from that, there is a clear need to develop other skills in our organization, namely non-replicable skills because that is where the competition game is going to be played.

Here is what I mean.

We all know what a competitive advantage is, i.e. “a condition or circumstance that puts a company in a favourable or superior business position”. So in a world of AI being able to work instead of people on some topics (and excelling at it) what condition or circumstance should we be focusing on?

It cannot be AI and automation, because that is now available to pretty much everyone so even adjusting for some variation in budget, that’s pretty much a level field.

In other words, if you use AI you have a major advantage against people that don’t. If everyone uses AI though, you can’t expect to have an advantage against competitors because of that!

And if that is true, it is also true that the advantage must come from areas that are not currently covered by AI, so enter non-replicable skills. 

If you look at the latest reports on the most desired skills by companies, you will see that the top 10 or so are almost all human skills. Think empathy, leadership, creative thinking. Those are all core aspects of humans that (thus far) cannot be replicated by an AI.

If that is the case, and if AI will be more and more responsible for the execution of hard tasks and routine tasks for everyone, the companies that will really make the difference are going to be the ones in which people can work the best together.

In practice this means:

  • Being creative: knowing what creativity is, what the two creative processes are, how they work and how to trigger each one when working alone and when working in a group
  • Applying emotional intelligence: far from being limited to empathy, a scientific approach to EI leads to clear, measurable and performance-linked results
  • Modern leadership: operating in science-based ways to genuinely build a rapport with people, working on trust, people development, intrinsic motivation.

And it is clear where responsibilities lie for this: on HR, on Managers and on C-Level.

HR are by far the most well-informed, able to understand the link between people, skills and business success / competitive advantage, they will however still need to design learning programs and sell the need to rapidly develop those skills to both managers and C-level.

Managers are the ones that need to grow, that need to become aware of the changes in their role, that need to put in the work in upskilling and reskilling themselves on non-replicable skills. They will have quite a hard time as the change in their role will be the most radical skillwise.

C-level are the ones that need to make the decision – and here the issue has to do with the vision they have of the future and their own company. They can see investing in these skills as a cost, or they can see it as an investment.

Whatever the group we are looking at, working on this type of skills involves change, a radical change in perspective and behavior, because business as we know it will not remain for long – and it will be a very short time before what we still call the “Future of Work” will become a reality.

Once it does, only the strong survive, or – better said – only the ones whose skills can leverage a competitive advantage against others. And those skills will only be the non-replicable ones.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Edoardo Binda Zane.

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