Business leaders must make lifelong learning a corporate priority if they want to remain competitive, says a new article by McKinsey & Company.

The competitive advantage of early adopters of advanced algorithms and robotics will diminish rapidly, and companies will need to differentiate themselves by how their people interact with those tools and make complex decisions in the course of doing their work. Workers, managers and executives need to keep up with the machines and be able to interpret their results.

The authors note that while most companies focus on learning “hard” skills, such as coding, analytics and data science, true differentiation also requires an emphasis on “soft” attributes like collaboration, empathy and meaning making.

  • Teamwork will be more important and valuable than ever. As knowledge expands, expertise both deepens and narrows, requiring collaboration across fields to produce results. Teamwork doesn’t necessarily mean collaborating within teams to work together on specific tasks. Instead, it’s often about teaming—communicating and collaborating with people across boundaries, such as expertise or distance, spontaneously and continuously.
  • Empathy can be difficult in a global marketplace, especially when we can’t see other people’s faces due to geographically dispersed workforces or remote service encounters. Among the authors’ recommendations for encouraging empathy: teach perspective-taking exercises; have managers spend time on the front lines; monitor feedback blogs; praise your staff, in public, when they get things right; use design-thinking tools such as empathy maps as a starting point for conceiving new products and features and for identifying customer pain points.
  • Remember there’s a difference between knowledge and meaning. For example, while AI might make it possible for a machine to make certain kinds of diagnoses more accurately than a person can, it will be up to nurses, doctors and therapists to help patients understand the implications and manage the consequences. As information-rich tools help provide better solutions to complex situations, organizations will need to understand what matters for each person. The authors note that people who come to work believing that what they do matters are more committed to their organizations, more passionate about serving customers and more resilient in the face of challenges.

See the full McKinsey & Co. article: “Putting lifelong learning on the CEO agenda.”