It seems everywhere we turn today, especially in the wake of CES, the talk is of automation: from factories to self-driving cars, from legal counsel to medical diagnoses. The communications and marketing world is no different: bots are already writing news and algorithms are managing ad campaigns.

So as we look to 2017 and beyond, where does that leave us as professionals? What skills are most important to hone, not only to avoid obsolescence, but to apply in parallel with advanced technology to effectively advance our profession?

Inspired by this question at last month’s PRNews Awards Luncheon, I did some research and put some thought into what truly is the most important skill for 2017.

Long story short, more than any individual skill, the value will be in a perspective and thought process modeled after an air traffic controller.

Do More Than One Thing

The first types of jobs that will become – and are becoming – obsolete are those that tackle a discrete task. For example, a Japanese insurance company is replacing human insurance claim workers with IBM Watson, and fully automated planes aren’t far behind, After all, pilots already only spend seven minutes per flight manually piloting their planes. An air traffic controller doesn’t simply fly a plane, they don’t simply refuel a plane, and they don’t simply report on the weather conditions. They bridge the gap between each of these discrete tasks, a role that today still requires human skill. In the air traffic control world that may not last; in the communications and marketing world, it will be critical for the foreseeable future.

Synthesize Info and Apply Expertise

Air traffic controllers receive information from 26 different air traffic management systems, taking the details from each and applying their own knowledge and expertise to create a schedule for each flight. The same applies to marketing and communications professionals; we need to understand how the various pieces fit together: from audience segmentation to content channels, from journalist targets to sales data. That is the expertise we bring that layers on top of increasingly automated technologies. After all, according to a 2016 McKinsey study of automation in the workplace, the application of expertise is one of the activities least likely to be automated.

Add the Human Touch

If you ever listen to channel 9 on an airplane you can hear the remaining uniquely human element: the radio dialogue between air traffic controllers and pilots. Yes, it sounds emotionless, and yes it may become irrelevant in the near future, but it will remain a critical piece of our profession. After all, as Quentin Hardy has articulated, “human contact has become relatively scarce, and therefore valuable, in a digitally-driven society.” Think about clergy, teachers, or therapists – research from Oxford indicates these are among the least likely jobs to be fully automated, a direct result of the uniquely human requirements of each. In our profession, human interaction is how we build relationships and trust to ultimately uncover interesting stories to tell, understand the emotions and motivations behind an audience segment, identify compelling new campaign concepts, know the nuances of how to communicate with different types people, and (in certain situations) apply intuition to interpreting vast amounts of data.

See the Bigger Picture

Finally, the most important piece that air traffic controllers do is physically sit above the tarmac – where they can watch all airport activity and spot things you can’t see from the ground. While technologies can automate a host of ‘ground-level’ activities, it still requires the human eye to see how all of that fits together. Not to mention the human bias that goes into building AI and algorithms – and the resulting shortcomings revealed by events of 2016. When it comes to our world, the most important factor for marketing and communications professionals is to grasp the bigger picture – and apply technologies to support that bigger picture. So long as we can see beyond the increasingly automated ‘ground-level’ tasks, and apply our expertise to decipher unseen opportunities or problem areas, our human role will remain critical. At least until Skynet takes over…