Skills Gap: The Future is High Touch

Micène Fontaine, August 13, 2019

Comparing Millennials to Gen X, baby boomers and now to Gen Z has captivated our attention for quite a while. Maybe I am just tired of hearing about how different we all are. Perhaps I am just lazy and looking for a one-size-fits-all approach (terrible idea - for the record). Regardless, I was thrilled to come across articles and research studies talking about commonality across generations.




Why: If learning is the second motivator, and if we are going to design learning experiences aiming at bridging the skills gap, we need to understand how our learners learn best. 

The Shift: The need to understand why and how learning something matters, and the preference for active, challenging, and self-directed learning echo Malcolm Knowles' theory of andragogy (jargony word for the art and science of how adults learn). These findings are also reflected in the current shift away from a passive lecture/instructor/content-centered approach to learning in favor of an active experience/learner/problem-centered approach. In practice, that's the difference between attending a lecture and participating in a hackathon, for example.

The good news for learners is that a wealth of resources are now only a click, tap, or voice prompt away. While there is the issue of vetting the reliability of the sources, it means that learners can learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it. They can also apply it immediately (which is key to retention). 

Just-in-time: Not only are 21st-century learners expecting just-in-time access to what they need to learn, but they also expect access to only what they need to learn. For instance, if I need to insert a special character such as "é" in a document and it is not readily available on my keyboard. I don't want to learn all about special characters, their origins, the different types of keyboards, etc. I only want and need to learn how to create and insert this one particular special character into my document when I need to type it. It is self-directed, just-in-time, chunked, active, immediately applied, challenging learning, and with immediate feedback. Did it work or not? These are the reasons why so many of us turn to Google, YouTube, or Siri for learning. 

Workflow learning tries to replicate that learning experience and further embed it in the context in which the learning is needed (working, cooking, working out, etc). For instance, the spellcheck function is an elementary form of workflow learning.  Augmented reality is also used to assist workers in completing complex tasks in real-time. It works similarly to Google maps’ augmented reality (AR) walking directions in the sense that it overlays the chunked bits of training on top of the work environment. Some cars already feature a rudimentary form of AR windshields. The one I experienced overlaid my speed, the posted speed limit, and critical driving directions in my field of vision on the windshield. I did not have to stop driving to consult the information, and I did not have to take my eyes off the road. We are not there yet, but this is the type of workflow learning experience we are hoping to achieve. 

Learners’ Expectations: 21st-century learners expect learning to be mobile, social, seamless (not only sync being on and offline sessions but also pick up where you left off across devices), and adaptive. The user experience is paramount. As consumers, we have been spoiled and we - rightfully so  - expect the same as learners. Experience is expected to surpass price and products as a key differentiator.10 Until a better example comes along, think Netflix. Subscribers can start watching a show on their cell phone during their commute. Continue watching on their iPad while preparing dinner, and finish watching on the living room screen. The seamlessness across devices creates for a good user experience, which learners are now expecting in learning platforms they use. On the learning front, this is where platforms like EdCast and others come in and aim at delivering a seamless and personalized experience across vetted resources. The current shift away from learning management systems (LMS) to learning experience platforms (LXP) and the buzz around technologies like blockchain and xAPI could fuel platforms that are genuinely about the learners' learning rather than compliance and seat time. 


Top 10 Skills Needed: According to the World Economic Forum, the top 10 skills needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution are soft skills5. According to a Forrester Research Report, soft skills will be critical in a world where "businesses are drowning in data but starving for insights."6 Hence, professionals with well-honed soft skills and a touch of tech will thrive. These findings reflect what we found when we administered our survey about the gap between foundational education and practice (in architecture & interior design). Survey respondents were asked to think about less experienced design professionals (whom they had either hired or worked with). They were then asked to list aspects of the work for which their less experienced counterparts were least prepared. "People/Communication Skills"11 was the most highly ranked deficiency. 

Human-Machine Collaboration: The reality that if professionals are not already collaborating with artificial intelligence or seeing some of their duties reassigned to a machine, they will soon be. Indeed, "the workforce needs to be prepared for the human-machine partnerships of the future."7 To be clear, this affects all jobs across all sectors, including lawyers, doctors, architects, designers, farmers, and factory workers alike. This human-machine collaboration and transition to digital are why soft skills with a touch of tech are in high demand. 

Soft Skills: Soft skills is what we - humans - still have over machines. Soft skills include people management, cognitive flexibility, communication, teamwork, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, leadership, emotional intelligence, empathy, and critical thinking. Even Google, as Mark Marone points out, found that it valued soft skills over science, tech, engineering, and math when it analyzed its HR data. There are concerns, but the human-machine collaboration is not about removing the human but about letting each do what they do best. In a 2018 Deloitte survey about industry 4.0, which "is characterized by the marriage of physical and digital technologies, such as analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and internet of things technology", a majority of respondents felt that "Industry 4.0 will augment my job, supporting me by allowing me to focus on more creative, human and value-adding work."8 

Tech Skills: The age of human-machine collaboration increases the value of soft skills AND the need for professionals to have a working knowledge of coding, data analytics, AI, blockchain, etc. Those in leadership positions will need "to learn how to manage a combination of humans and machines."9 I equate this to acquiring a shared language with our machine coworkers. 


When we set out to survey the skills gap in the interior design and architecture profession, we did not expect soft skills to rank among the highest. But that's what we found. When we decided to do further research to see if the findings of our small scale survey overlapped with broader research findings. The answer was a resounding, yes. There is something ironic (even poetic maybe) about having to embrace and excel at what are quintessentially human qualities to thrive in the digital age or what Daniel Pink calls the “conceptual age”12. An age in which “Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning.”12 matter most.  

High touch, high tech, neither one or both? Where do you think the skills gap lie? Share your thoughts.

And, of course, keep learning.


1 Elton, Chester. "Impact and Learning Span the Generations." Chief Learning Officer - CLO Media. January 18, 2019. Accessed August 08, 2019. 

2 "Never Too Late To Learn New Tricks." Chief Learning Officer. October 20, 2018. Accessed August 08, 2019.

3 Lester, Scott W., Rhetta L. Standifer, Nicole J. Schultz, and James M. Windsor. "Actual Versus Perceived Generational Differences at Work." Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 19, no. 3 (2012): 341-54. doi:10.1177/1548051812442747.

4 Mencl, Jennifer, and Scott W. Lester. "More Alike Than Different." Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 21, no. 3 (2014): 257-72. doi:10.1177/1548051814529825. 

5 Gray, Alex. "The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution." World Economic Forum. Accessed August 08, 2019. 

6 "Forrester." Digital Insights Are The New Currency Of Business. Accessed August 08, 2019. Insights Are The New Currency Of Business/-/E-RES119109#.

7 Marone, Mark. "Working Arm in Arm." Chief Learning Officer - CLO Media. March 27, 2019. Accessed August 08, 2019. 

8 "Deloitte." 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey. Accessed August 08, 2019.

9 Gale, Sarah Fister. "Digital Degrees and Flexibility." Chief Learning Officer - CLO Media. August 07, 2019. Accessed August 08, 2019. 

10 "Walker." Customers 2020. Accessed August 08, 2019.

11 “Design Arts Seminars, Inc.” 2019 Learning in Design and Architecture Survey. 

12 Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2012. 

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