Critical Thinking: An Essential Soft Skill in the Age of Apps and Automation

At the 2018 World Economic Forum, Jack Ma, founder of global e-commerce sensation Alibaba, said, “We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique.”

Indeed, an increasing concern for employers and employees alike is the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of apps and automation in a wide variety of fields from accounting to manufacturing to retail. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that soon an average of 15% of work activities across the globe could be displaced by automation.

What is critical thinking and why does it matter?

So what is this “something unique” we should be teaching our children – and employees? Many experts believe it’s critical thinking.

Problem-solving in the workplace can be complex, and decisions may have serious consequences. The foundation of effective problem solving is critical thinking: the ability to analyze information objectively, assess different perspectives, and reach a logical conclusion uninfluenced by emotion or personal bias. Essentially, workers need to be able to think creatively, solve problems in new and unexpected ways, communicate and collaborate effectively, and understand how to apply data to real-world situations.

The McKinsey study predicts, “Demand for higher cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and decision-making, and complex information processing will grow through 2030, at cumulative double-digit rates.”

According to Professor Joseph Aoun, author of the book Robot Proof, “When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers – quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way….be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically.”

The state of critical thinking in the workplace

Although critical thinking skills are more in demand than ever, the workforce as a whole is significantly underprepared to take on high-level cognitive challenges.

A global study by MCAT reveals that 84% of managers believe their company suffered a financial loss due to a lack of critical thinking among employees. Other research finds that the higher up the ladder an employee is, the more important critical thinking becomes. A minor mistake by a low-level employee is easily fixed, but a CEO’s error in judgment could lead to disaster. And yet, 62% of respondents said their organization does nothing to recruit, hire, and train critical thinkers.

And so…

One important takeaway is that critical thinking can be taught and existing skills sharpened. However, 80% of those surveyed in the MCAT study were never offered training to improve their critical thinking skills.

Companies who invest in critical thinking development have an opportunity to ahead of the curve. Isn’t it time to give your employees this higher-level skill to help themselves – and your organization?

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