Buckle up. The face of work and organizations is changing even faster than you think.

It’s no longer a revelation that technology is changing how we live and work. The digital transformation forecasts of a few short years ago have dramatically changed our organizations and personal lives. Look no further than Uber, Netflix, Airbnb or Udacity to understand the speed and extent of change and innovation.

The advance of computing power and speed is also shaping a new workplace. Jobs that focused on routine, standardized tasks are now easily performed by intelligent machines, rendering traditional job categories obsolete while creating new ones. And before you feel too secure that your complex and non-routine job could never be automated, consider that The McKinsey Global Institute placed the automation of knowledge work second on its 2013 list of trends in the transition to the digital economy. Knowledge work is now squarely in the crosshairs of automation.

You might ask yourself, as Geoff Colvin did in a Fortune article, what work will be left for the humans? The answer to this question is the key to the future of the learning and development profession, because the question that quickly follows is, what critical competencies will humans need to make our organizations competitive?

What skills will we need to support organizations in the near future?

A number of recent studies have tackled this question, including research from the Institute for the Future, The World Economic Forum, the Pew Research Center and the Canadian Advisory Council on Economic Growth. While each report comes to slightly different conclusions, the consensus is that job growth is increasing for work that involves complex interactions and problem-solving and declining for transactional work and production work that converts physical materials into finished goods.

So, the answer to “What skills will we need in the future workplace?” seems to be the same answer to the question, “What don’t computers do well?” Intelligent machines struggle with creativity, social intelligence, complex perception and manipulation, each of which is among the skills that researchers have identified as the most in-demand skills for the future:

  • Complex problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgement and decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Sense-making
  • Social intelligence
  • Novel and adaptive thinking
  • Design mindset
  • Cognitive load management
  • Collaboration
  • Continuous learning
  • Personal networks
  • Scientific thinking
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy

These skills need to be developed, not trained. They take time and practice. They are also the skills that the learning and organizational development functions need to support and grow to help their organizations remain competitive.

Implications for Learning Professionals

Most learning functions remain grounded in mid-century approaches to training. Our task analysis, event-based learning, instructional design and learning management approaches work well, but they are all focused on exactly the kind of work currently being automated and replaced by AI and smart machines. To remain relevant and contribute meaningfully to our organizations, we will need to shift gears to developing and supporting complex cognitive and human skills.

Cognitive and human skills require deep learning that can’t happen in one-time training events. They are full of nuance and require adjustment to a variety of situations. They require a blend of immersive experiences, connections with peers and experts, coaching, supportive learning tools, and continuous practice with feedback over time.

Proven methods include action learning, cognitive apprenticeships, personal knowledge networks and communities of practice – all approaches that focus on development in the context of authentic work and not quick training activities. Creating performance support tools and building knowledge into work practices are also strategies that will need to move from the fringes to center stage.

Some future skills are behavioral attributes as much as they are skills. We have learned much about personal behavior change in recent years, but we can see little evidence of that learning in most L&D functions. We need to leverage new strategies from behavior economics, cognitive science, and the continuous learning hardwired into agile and lean work methods.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to embrace the wisdom that real performance improvement and capability growth come from understanding that people, processes and technology are truly interdependent. They need to be treated together, as a system, not as siloed improvement efforts. It’s time that organizational development, L&D, IT, and lean improvement groups begin to work together to co-create more holistic solutions. Supporting complex cognitive and interactive skills requires innovation, experimentation and adaptive thinking to land on what works best to develop the people and organizations of the future.