Complex problem-solving

It was big news recently when an autonomous car operated by Uber with an emergency backup driver behind the wheel struck and killed a woman on a street in Tempe, Arizona – the first pedestrian death associated with self-driving technology. The company quickly suspended testing in Tempe, as well as in other cities.

Such will be the kind of customer problems in the future – artificial intelligence (AI) gone wrong for a customer – which potentially can be addressed by a super call center agent and not another AI. This agent is capable of solving novel and ill-defined problems in complex, real-world settings. Other examples of complex problem-solvers abound in business.

Take for instance Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, who is solving many of the world’s complex problems such as providing affordable electric cars and space travel, cutting down travel time through hyperloop, and potentially traveling and colonizing Mars. He said, “For me it was never about money, but solving problems for the future of humanity.”

His approach to complex problem-solving is “actively questioning every assumption you think you ‘know’ about a given problem or scenario — and then creating new knowledge and solutions from scratch.”

Complex problem-solving will be a core skill most employers will require by 2020. This is according to a report from the World Economic Forum called “The Future of Jobs,” which surveyed executives from more than 350 employers across nine industries in 15 of the world’s largest economies. There are three components of this important skill of the future.

First is critical thinking, which is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a judgment or conclusion. This develops during the formative years of primary and secondary schooling.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written previously, we are seeing a decline in this skill due to the rote pedagogy, instead of reflective thinking, in our educational system. Employers can implement training programs and sustaining activities to improve, if not reverse, the critical thinking skill inventory of their workforce.

Second is creativity, which is the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to turn new and imaginative ideas into reality.
Fortunately, this is a set of skills and expertise that our country has, rooted from a long history and rich heritage of artistry, making us different and a cut above others. This is evidenced by the abundance of Filipino creative talents anywhere you go – performers in Broadway, hotel lounges, and bars; programmers, illustrators, digital media and advertising professionals working in large companies like Marvel, Google, Disney, etc.; architects, painters, writers, actors, fashion and interior designers are renowned all over the world.

Lastly, data analytics skills, which refer to capabilities in analyzing and modeling large volume of data, be it structured or unstructured for decision-making in business. Data obtained from different sources is put together, examined and then analyzed to arrive at a conclusion. It requires the knowledge of wielding analytics tools to process large data sets.

The inventory of this skill among our workforce is starting to improve, as training and academic institutions start to ramp up training of new graduates and professionals. But there is still a dearth of professionals who effectively employ data analytics in the workplace, as this also requires critical thinking in hypothesis formulation and testing.

These three components involve whole brain thinking, which is a tough capability to have. For the super call center agent in the future that helps solve complex problems for customers, a new breed of graduates and professionals need to be employed. Again, it boils down to our educational system that needs to modernize.

The author is president & CEO of Hungry Workshorse Consultancy Inc., a digital and culture transformation firm, and co-founder of Caucus Inc, a data privacy firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He is also an adjunct faculty at the Asian Institute of Management. He can be emailed at