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future of work

Despite my best intentions this year, my credit-card statements have begun that upward creep that often strikes fear into my frugal heart. Desperate to gain control, I've begun to analyze my spending habits, considering I have no new clothes or items at home to show for these expenses. The culprit: I am apparently a sucker for services.

I subscribe to one that tracks my diet and makes suggestions based on my goals. Another tracks my sleep habits and lets me know under what conditions I reach REM. Others continually provide me with music based on my preferences and another keeps my kids primed with the latest virtual, multiplayer games.

There may have been a point in time where I would have just bought a scale, a sleep blindfold and some CDs, but I realize that more than products, I desire the data.

It doesn't end there. While this sounds like it's merely just part of the normal adoption toward the Internet of things and artificial intelligence, the emphasis here is less on things than on services that provide data. Increasingly, companies are following the trend and moving from selling products to services.

"Everyone is turning into a service company," said Nabeel Sherif, senior product manager at Q9 Networks and the lead for the University of Toronto's cloud computing program.

"They will sell you the equipment, but then sell you the service of the management and monitoring of the equipment," he added.

He speaks from experience. While working at GE Energy years ago, he witnessed the transition from selling only the utilities to tackling the bigger problem of system breakdown. As a result, they began offering proactive substation monitoring of substation equipment.

Naturally, it doesn't stop at energy. John Deere, explained Mr. Sherif, no longer just sells tractors. They will also offer services that "talk to your tractor" and can tell you what's working and what's not, he added. New companies will build in services. For example, if someone wanted to launch a new airline, they might not buy planes but pay for the thrust.

"We don't buy assets any more. We buy outcomes," Mr. Sherif explained.

So what does this mean for employees in the work force? While conventional wisdom dictates that everyone must hone their coding skills, that might not be the case. In fact, it's the soft skills that will assume greater value, according to Berlin-based Tim Leberecht, author of The Business Romantic and a consultant who helps companies with workplace culture and transformation.

"Ironically, as process-driven, linear work gets automated, more subjective tasks that require empathy, imagination and a nuanced understanding of meaning will become the stronghold of those with a broader, generalist skill set," Mr. Leberecht said. "This favours liberal-arts majors or artists," he added.

For example, he cites the increasing popularity of chatbots, or conversational robots and the need to keep improving on them. Mr. Leberecht predicts that chatbots will increase the need for "conversation design," which will emerge as "a new critical skill set."

"Already, companies like IBM are seeking to hire playwrights, poets or filmmakers who have a keen eye for human behaviour, high emotional intelligence and are adept at designing for ambiguous, complex verbal and non-verbal interactions [conversations]," he said.

To prepare for this future of work, employees and freelancers need to understand that the marketplace will favour those that are adaptable, that can adjust to new circumstances and requirements, he explained. The marketplace will also favour extreme subject-matter experts and generalists. Those caught in the middle will lose out.

"A few years ago, the whole world began to tout coding as an essential skill set, just for us now to realize that coding may in fact be delegated to AI and no longer count as a differentiating skill in the job market," Mr. Leberecht observed.

Rather, workers will need to hone the soft skills that complement AI, he explained, such as critical thinking, creativity and empathy.

Mr. Leberecht cites a recent Korn Ferry study that shows that in the near future, human resources will still be almost 2.5 times more valuable than all other production factors, such as real estate, inventory and technology combined.

The report goes on to say that artificial intelligence may mimic the brain but "it's only as powerful as the imaginations that use it and is years away from developing full emotional intelligence."

In other words, even though we are seeing a shift from product to service, and the technical requirements to adapt to the future of work will increase in complexity, it's premature to write off the value emotional intelligence brings to the table.

"The future of work is indeed very human," Mr. Lebrecht stated.