Monday, April 19, 2010

Are Our Skills Becoming Obsolete?

At a recent visit to the Alexander G. Bell Museum, I was taken aback by having to explain to my children the workings of a rotary phone. This was something that I grew up with and it was as natural to me as are the Web, Tivo, and iPhone to my kids today.

This experience made me think of the changes in work-related skills that we will go through from one generation to another. A generation ago, many managers relied on the help of a typist who was skilled in mastering the QWERTY keyboard which was originally designed to slow down the typist to prevent jamming of the early, unreliable typewriters. While the typists knew how to type, the managers used to know how to dictate complete and well-structured sentences. With the introduction of word processing, the dictation skill has disappeared because we can construct sentences as we type. Only doctors and CSI investigators on TV still dictate. Everybody else became a typist.

Indeed, some of the skills we teach in schools today might be vanishing soon. Typing might be less and less useful should mobile devices replace PCs - unless we start needing lessons in high speed thumb-typing. But should video-mail replace e-mail, dictation might become a necessary skill soon again.

How about skills such as spelling or multiplications? With spell-checking software built into every text-entry interface from Word to Twitter, spelling is becoming less and less a necessary skill. Similarly, nobody does complex calculations on paper any longer, even though we still teach it in schools. Just like we don’t teach the use of the abacus or slide rulers anymore, we might not need to teach multiplications or divisions any longer. And who uses a sextant with complex tables for navigation today? Only the hard-core hobby sailors still learn the science of celestial navigation– the pros use a GPS.

Which skills will be required in the future? For sure, we will need the skill to extract useful wisdom from information overflow. Doing research no longer means to gather information but rather to decide what to skim, what to ignore and what not to trust. We might also need the skill related to metadata and data modeling to be able to retrieve and manipulate information effectively. Organizing an iTunes library requires such skill on a basic level.

Should we really start using video instead of keyboard entry, we might need some of the communication skills reserved today for media talent such as lighting or sound mixing. Otherwise, we will have to live with a lot of really bad pictures of ourselves. And most of us like to pick a ‘good picture’ for our Facebook profile.

There will likely be many other new skills that we will need in the near future. Therefore, we should probably start retooling today to be competitive tomorrow.


  1. I think imagination, creativity and love of learning. Although not specifically skills - perhaps more a state of mind. These will probably be the most sought after ability in the future. If one learns this, he/she can be successful in the future. Unfortunately schools do not teach this too much, relying mostly teaching how to regurgitate information.

  2. Alexander G. Bell Museum is a great example of an institution that prepares us for and helps us embrace sweeping changes. My family and I also visited the Museum (in Baddeck, Nova Scotia). Contemplating life before and after the telephone led my children and I to think about the changes we'll see and the possibilities for us to usher in revolutionary technologies. One of the ways to prepare for the future is to create experiences like the museum that give us new perspective to think about the future.