A Simple Path to Upgrade Human Skills

Social learning clubs can regroove our brains for the Robotic Age

Until recently, thinking and behaving like a well-oiled machine was seen as an efficient way to run a business. Now workers need to cultivate a blend of human-centric sensibilities; such as empathy, awareness, humility and creative thinking. This shift can, however, feel like an overwhelming extra burden on an already time-starved workforce.

A common assumption is that the skills we need to outthink a robot will be acquired through top-down, mass re-education programs. But before investing in this approach, let’s consider the merits of a grassroots alternative. Let’s also question how people will actually make such deep-seated changes, and the overarching emotional support required for this journey.

Workers have a history of being attracted to self-improvement clubs, including service clubs, public speaking clubs, networking and book clubs. Our natural affinity for both social interaction and self-directed learning can inform an updated model: the social learning club. These clubs would draw small groups together to wrestle with real, commonplace business situations. Unlike lectures, debates, or problem-solving what sets them apart is their question-based inquiring mind approach to learning.

Social learning clubs would be free, open and DIY. They would not rely on institutions or the whims of any political party for support. They would provide us with a sense of agency by offering a simple path forward now, rather than waiting for others to take action on our behalf.

Using our heads

Whether facing wily robots, political extremes or climate change, we need bright ideas that might come from anyone. How will we prepare ourselves to do what we’re truly capable of? For generations, opportunities to exercise judgment at conventional jobs have been limited. Despite talk of valuing innovation, rewards for conformity have shaped habits of thinking and interaction with co-workers. Overwhelmingly, workers have been taught to suppress their ingenuity. Hard-bitten experience has reinforced the expectation that if we care enough to ask questions about root causes we may be labeled a troublemaker.

Changing these self-limiting norms will not happen in a classroom. Mechanistic ideals and patterns of thinking come with deeply embedded emotional attachments and primal fears. For example, developing the confidence, awareness, humility and creative thinking to ask better questions must be regrooved through practice and experiment over time.

Moreover, we need to consider how workers will mentally cope with and absorb the shift in demand to think differently. How will we as a society address technology-driven anxiety, alienation and loneliness? Social learning clubs would provide a supportive home base and camaraderie. As with other self-improvement clubs, they offer a sense of belonging that has been known to endure for decades, beyond the ups and downs of any particular employer.

Bridging the say-do gap

Another common assumption about human skills is that they can be deconstructed as distinct, teachable capabilities. In practice, merely knowing more about human skills does not typically change what people do. Most of us can call to mind a few co-workers who emerged from extensive leadership development programs to continue functioning as the same self-absorbed bullies they’ve always been. They might have gained more knowledge about leadership and be able to pass a test on leadership. They know their personality type and leadership style, while demonstrating a total lack of self-awareness and empathy in their everyday lives.

Participants in a free and open social learning club gain appreciation for different perspectives and see what others miss. They begin to turn their complaints into questions. They become more adept at extracting wisdom from daily experiences. Rather than being exposed to training, they learn by doing and see by doing. Practicing self-reliance in a supportive setting prepares them for an unpredictable future.

For example, one session might delve into the many aspects of a common situation: “You’ve described your new idea. Someone says, “That’ll never work!” Or, someone tells you that they want to pay you less than your requested rate. Instead of jumping to answers or relying on what experts think, the group investigates many ways to look at the situation and diverse ways it could be handled. This investigation and dialogue process strengthens our powers of observation and inquiry. We think more clearly through the options that emerge.

The act of analyzing and wrestling with a single, common work situation per session makes all the difference. Instead of tackling big, overwhelming issues, we put our heads together to better understand micro-events in our daily lives: What questions should we be asking? What’s really going on here? Is there another way forward? What are we missing?

No trainer. No program. No problem.

Today we all need to be students of human nature: observing, questioning, and doing other things that leave the robots scratching their heads. Social learning clubs can span economic and social divisions by attracting a mix of CEOs, janitors, baristas, students, seniors and designers. A shared spirit of inquiry increases our appreciation for what each person brings to the conversation. A “beginner’s mind” approach helps us seek out root causes rather than symptoms. We can learn how to disagree respectfully and explain our ideas. Rather than solving problems, we can see how to prevent problems and discover what can be.

The nature of complex thinking and interactive skills development suggests that we will be wasting time and money by not looking at self-sustaining, long-term, social-centric models. The social learning club is a grassroots innovation that reminds us that we don’t always need gurus, instructors and experts to help us discover greater possibilities in our everyday encounters. Employer and government initiatives can be directed toward technological support and training rather than chasing elusive human skills.

How will workers find the time to meet face-to-face? Consider the time and energy that could be saved each day through problem prevention, less adversarial ways of working, and more mindful ways of handling recurring, messy situations. Imagine a more peaceful night’s sleep, free of wily robot dreams.