AI Aids in Skill Development and Retention

For much of my career, I have been fascinated by how much of our understanding and skill rests on second-nature knowledge, abilities, and habits. We can quickly teach another person how to use a screwdriver (“Right tight, left loose”) but would struggle to teach them how to be creative or collaborate well with others. This is known as Polanyi’s paradox, named for Hungarian chemist, philosopher, and economist Michael Polanyi, who believed that the challenge of articulating and sharing such “tacit” knowledge was a powerful constraint on productivity in nontechnical and interpersonal work. Today, we call this the “soft skills gap.”

However, a recent study led by Stanford economist Erik Brynjolfsson suggests that artificial intelligence (AI) chat technology could unlock and strengthen tacit skills. The research focused on over 5,000 call-center customer-support staff. Workers using AI chat tech as a coach for dealing with customer problems and complaints experienced a 14 percent increase in productivity, with new hires reaching the performance level of experienced workers in just two months. These workers had shorter call times, handled inquiries more efficiently, and experienced fewer escalation requests. Turnover also fell. Significantly, the technology proved most beneficial for lower-skilled workers, boosting their productivity by 35 percent. This breakthrough addresses the long-standing challenges of transferring tacit knowledge, providing real-time access to strategies typically acquired over months or years, increasing value, and reducing recruitment and hiring costs.

New Mexico’s adoption of AI for managing public services offers another example of how AI can increase efficiency, reduce transaction costs, and improve workers’ job satisfaction. AI handles in minutes activities that used to take days or weeks and involved reams of paperwork. Workers are free to focus on higher-value work activities rather than being tied down with cumbersome and frustrating administrative tasks. Ultimately, AI increases taxpayers’ return on investment by reducing costs and improving services.

AI is in its early days, and both opportunities and risks abound. But these early signs should encourage us that by improving skills and removing friction from a range of activities, this technology may turn out to be a trusted part of our work systems rather than a threat to the future of work.

This week, we won’t be posting a new episode of the Hardly Working podcast. Instead, I encourage you to listen to the WorkforceRx with Futuro Health podcast, in which I talked with Futuro Health CEO and host, Van Ton-Quinlivan. We discussed sector-based training programs, soft and technical skills development, and the future of work.

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