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Core Skills for the Digital / Cognitive Age

Image by Pascal Wiemers from Pixabay

For around 2.6 Million years, when the stone age began, humans have been using tools to augment our physical abilities. As these tools became more sophisticated and especially after we powered them up with cables and now batteries, our accompanying need for improved skills grew with them. To the point where we began to develop specific trades that required detailed education to apply them in ways that improved the quality of what we made and our safety. Lopping off an arm or a few fingers isn’t very good after all.

As we entered into the digital age of computing, we began to augment our cognitive abilities. Search engines evolved to source the information we wanted to turn into knowledge. The internet connected our brains. Smartphones put this early cognitive augmentation in our pockets. Along with lots of songs and nice cameras so we could walk backwards off cliffs taking selfies. We’re not always smart about how we adapt to technologies. As with physical tools and the development of skills and trades, so we’ve done with cognitive tools; coding, network management, systems administrators and so on. Now you can even be certified for things like marketing automation tools, Google Analytics and AdSense and so on. Skills largely ignored by traditional academia.

These industry driven skills are necessary to know if one works in the knowledge sector. They’re driven by large platform technopolies like HubSpot, Google, Facebook, Microsoft. Not having any of those skills will limit ones ability to advance in many companies. These add-on certifications are driven by the need to adapt. Academia for the most part, has not adapted. Workers and industry have.

As we move deeper into the Cognitive Age, technologies like Artificial Intelligence and robotics, advanced software, will require humans to adapt in ways they haven’t before. As with any technology humans create, there is good and bad. In some areas, many jobs will be lost. But new jobs that we can’t even name today, will arise. Humans will have to adapt in order to earn an income.

The Cognitive Age will place on many a requirement to constantly be up-skilling. Many will have to think in new ways as well. The jobs that will be replaced the most and the fastest will be those that are very process oriented that require minimal creative or second/third order thinking.

The legal and insurance industries are prime examples. The upside for lawyers is that much of their research can be done by AI engines, thus leaving them more time to build arguments. This could in many ways, benefit countries that have a Rule of Law and legitimate judiciary system. The insurance industry could benefit from AI that lets it formulate new and innovative insurance packages.

Some of the core skills we will need in the Cognitive Age are:

  • Second & Third Order Thinking
  • Deep understanding of mental models and how to apply them
  • Complex Systems Thinking
  • Sociocultural knowledge
  • Change Management Skills
  • Human-Centric thinking
  • Complex Decision Making Abilities
  • Abstract & Critical Thinking
  • Network Effects understanding

Few of these are taught as part of regular post-secondary education, certainly not in MBA or Engineering schools. None are taught in secondary schools. They must mostly be picked up with independent programs or in specialized continuing education courses that are offered by larger universities.

Those who struggle with change and an ability to adapt to rapidly shifting situations will struggle the most. They will find it difficult to advance in their careers and may well be subject to automation. Those who embrace change and a desire to constantly be learning will thrive in the Cognitive Age. As academic institutions begin to wake from a theoretical slumber, they too will adapt. Post-Secondary education will undergo a massive change in the coming two decades.

The Cognitive Age puts new stresses on humanity’s ability to adapt as science-fiction increasingly becomes reality.



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