A kneejerk reaction is an entirely human one. It’s an involuntary reflex. This reaction has been fetching up at workplaces around the world —and the social ecosystems they generate — as the working (read: employed and employable) population grapple with the likelihood of human capital (long considered the biggest asset a company could possess) becoming a waning force, losing its way in the mire of auto-prompts, factory-fitted technology and AI-driven algorithms.

As tech invades our lives more and more, it is only fair to assume many of us are worried that machines will be taking over our functions. Add to the mix the slew of news that top tech firms are downsizing. Microsoft. Google. Meta. Amazon. Are these companies on a laying-off spree because they are now falling back on their core proposition, their raison d’être: technology?

Now, it’s a different matter that there is (most likely) a completely different reason why the big tech layoffs are taking place. During the pandemic, it had almost been a foregone — and perhaps kneejerk conclusion that the world will never be the same. With people staying at home, “physical” consumer trade had come to a standstill. The world’s operating system had suddenly, and altogether, moved online. Not unsurprisingly, tech companies amped up hiring to cater to the exponential surge in demand.

In a post-Covid setting, where we are back to square one, it’s being pronounced the “over” hiring had been yet another kneejerk reaction and the time to balance out the excesses is now. Which is why there’s been a spate of “letting go”.

It’s not really because human capital is doomed.

I came across a telling point of view recently that augments this reality. Speaking to Harvard Business Review, CEO of Genpact NV Tyagarajan — popularly known as Tiger Tyagarajan — said that “the importance of soft skills in everything in the world is just going to keep rising”.

Soft skills belong in the human capital department. There can never be a quibble over that. “The importance of building relationships, empathy, delighting the customer, really understanding the needs of the customer by actually listening,” Tyagarajan went on to add. “Then, the curiosity that a human being brings, I don’t think, yet, AI has been programmed to actually become curious. In fact, AI has been programmed for the reverse, which is, what has the pattern told us so far, and therefore what moves should we make? Whereas curiosity actually says, that’s the move I probably should make, but I want to explore something that I haven’t done before. I want to go north, even though the machine says go south. Only a human can do that.”

Chances of error during a computing — or collating — process will be less when technology is on hand. One simple example. You want to call your mother, and you think your cranial hardware is competent enough to memorise her number and store it for keeps. Reality check: it’s not, because you didn’t factor in brain fog. Instead, if you invoke technology and ask Siri to “Call mom”, it may be an unthinking, “convenient” act, but hard to upend.

And, then, after Siri calls your mother, it has to be all about you… and her. The human connection.

At the workplace, it’s pretty much the same thing at play. What technology cannot provide are the nuances, the empathy, and, most importantly (as Tyagarajan observed), curiosity. All of these constitute soft skills, the palpable — and sentient — connect only humans are capable of feeling, framing and executing.

While certain processes and even professions that lend themselves to better streamlining when mechanised are bound to get automated, soft skills are going to become the next big non-tech sector. Let’s again take the simple example of speaking to a bot — or chatting with a bot — on something as basic as a food app.

“Why is my order wrong?”

Technology won’t be able to tell you that — once it’s through with its repertoire of programmed responses. It will need a real person to come on the other end to take you through the subtleties of the food chain.

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