Darden’s Ed Hess: How To Succeed in the ‘Smart Machine Revolution’

The current generation of students is on the threshold of a job market unlike any the world has seen before, according to Edward Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

They will be competing not just against each other, but also against a growing array of robots, artificial intelligence and smart devices – for both blue- and white-collar jobs. Hess, whose research combines disciplines ranging from corporate strategy to cognitive psychology, believes succeeding in this market will require nothing less than redefining our definition of “smart.”

UVA Today sat down with Hess, author of “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization,” to discuss how students should adapt to the new market and the sometimes-dizzying pace of technological change.

Q. Based on your work, what are the biggest drivers of change in the workforce?

A. In the next seven to 10 years, advancements in smart robots, artificial intelligence, the “Internet of Things,” “big data,” and additive and distributed manufacturing will likely transform how businesses are staffed, operated and managed. Smart machines will likely displace many jobs in the service industries and professions, including fields like accounting, journalism, architecture, law, finance and certain types of medicine. Service jobs that require extensive emotional engagement, such as nursing, counseling, teaching or social work, will be less vulnerable.

According to a recent University of Oxford study, 66 percent of U.S. jobs have a high or medium probability of being displaced by technology in the next decade or two. A big concern is that technology might not create enough new jobs to replace those lost. College graduates have to consider: “Will I be able to outthink a smart machine?”

Q. How does the impact of this sea change compare to that of other shifts in the way that we approach work?

A. The Industrial Revolution was a sea change that moved many jobs from the farm to the factory. The coming “Smart Machine Revolution” will be quite different in that technology will likely displace far more jobs than it creates for humans. Humans will be needed primarily for tasks requiring higher-order critical and creative thinking, emotional engagement, or complex perceptual problem-solving requiring manual dexterity. The need for continuous innovation and learning will challenge the dominant management models birthed during the Industrial Revolution.

Q. What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the changing workplace?

A. High proficiency in critical and innovative thinking, emotional and social intelligence and being good at “not knowing.” Successful workers will need the curiosity and open-mindedness of a child, the courage of an explorer and the ability to “think” like a scientist, “make” like an engineer, “create” like an artist and “do” like an entrepreneur.

Q. How can we educate the next generation to succeed in the future job market, at the primary school level and in higher education?

A. We need a new definition of “smart.” In many educational environments, being smart is a quantity-based concept; it means you know more than other people as evidenced by making fewer mistakes. That definition will not work well in a world where the shelf life of knowledge is quite short and smart machines can search for, process, remember, synthesize, pattern match and recall more information, more effectively and quickly than any human.

Being smart should mean being good at not knowing – knowing what you do not know and knowing how to learn. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Most of our students have excelled at learning how to get good grades. We need to teach them how to learn in environments characterized by ambiguity and change, to collaborate effectively in teams, to manage their thinking, emotions, egos and emotional defensiveness and to treat everything they think they know as conditional, subject to modification by better data. These are life skills that transcend specific content areas.  

In the classroom, this will mean much more experiential work in small teams. That is how you learn to think, collaborate, listen and test what you believe. At the university level, an interdisciplinary approach with thematic courses, team teaching and free movement between departments and schools could be very helpful.

Q. What closing advice do you have for our students?

A. First, embrace the wonder, excitement and challenges that are in front of you. Begin to prepare yourself to be a very good lifelong learner. That means learning how to be a good critical and creative thinker, developing high emotional and social intelligence and learning how to learn from and bounce back from failures. Critical and innovative thinking requires humility, open-mindedness and reflective listening; work on those skills. Learn how to overcome our natural human tendencies to be confirmation-biased and emotionally defensive thinkers.

Seek out learning-by-doing opportunities that will put you into new and challenging situations where you will learn how to problem-solve and innovate through experiments and failures. Seek out learning experiences with people trained in different ways of thinking: science, engineering, the arts and law or business. Seek out the daily joy of learning!

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications