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Is there an investment frontier beyond technology?

With the inescapable narrative around the growing abilities of software to automate business functions, your company is (hopefully) thinking about how to integrate more of this into your operations to augment what you do. With the right investments in software you’re now ready to beat the competition


The frustrating reality is your competition is likely eyeing (or even making) similar investments in technology and with the internet at the same time making access to knowledge and guidance easier than ever, your technical expertise and abilities are likely to become less and less of a differentiator over time. What is a firm to do?

The chart below from the World Economic Forum paints a picture of labor skill trends. Of the five displayed, three are trending downward.

The trend lines tell us the demand for routine manual, nonroutine manual and routine cognitive tasks are shrinking, while nonroutine analytical and interpersonal skills are surging. The analytical skill conversation seems to be on its way with conversations around data on the rise, which is key as most organizations are still far from optimized in this area.

Where I feel the conversation becomes softer and more difficult to measure is the nonroutine interpersonal category. How does one work effectively with a diverse array of people on a complex problem? One skill required to engage in complex work with clients for which the outcome or possibilities are unknown is the ability to be vulnerable. To at moments stand with the client and say, “I don’t know. But here are some thoughts as to how we might proceed and ways in which I’m prepared to support you.” As researcher Brené Brown once said, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There's nothing more vulnerable than that.”

The era of the “sage on the stage” is riding into the sun. The expert is no longer someone who pulls their client out of the foxhole but instead has the courage to jump into it with them. It’s being able to keep a client calm, help them find context around the problem and discuss options they might try rather than heroically leaping to an answer.

The ability to practice vulnerability and develop emotional closeness with your clients will require an investment in helping your team gain comfort with practicing vulnerability and how to wade through complex problems rather than common solutions. As stated by David Maister in The Trusted Advisor, “the difference now is the human dimension, the recognition of interpersonal, individual aspects of the relationship… It is a central part of their profession to develop these interpersonal skills. Certainly no one ever teaches them to us in our training, either in school or inside the typical professional firm.”

There is risk indeed in becoming a firm that establishes vulnerability as part of its culture and yet the question is, “with the competition being seemingly everywhere you go, is the greater risk to change or stay the same?”

Go Forth Boldly

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