Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Why are we still speaking about 'soft skills'?

The campaign launched last week to promote ‘soft skills’ in the workplace is a laudable initiative. But it’s disappointing that we seem to need it. 

We all know, intuitively, how important such attributes are within teams. If we’re lucky, we’ve been part of groups with respect, integrity, warmth and openness at their core. We’ve experienced – and aided – the communication and collaboration evolving from this blend. We’ve been more engaged, committed and productive as individuals and teams as a result.
On the flip-side, we may have experienced teams where a lack of ‘soft skills’ led to friction, distrust and even open hostility. The impact can be destructive for everyone (and the organisation) involved.

We can all see the importance. So why do we need a campaign to explore and promote such skills? Why aren’t they already valued and cherished?
Well, there are no doubt several factors at play. For a start, the collective name has never been helpful. ‘Soft skills’ suggests these attributes and behaviours are all a bit flaky, a bit touchy-feely, rather than core and crucial aspects of day-to-day business. I think anyone who still holds this view should contact someone who has been involved in the type of destructive environment outlined above to discuss.

A second is that it’s difficult to quantify the precise and direct impact of such skills on performance. And this flies in the face of the apparently unquenchable thirst for measurement within business. If we can’t measure, we can’t prove value. And to circle back to nomenclature, ‘soft skills’ pale in comparison with ‘hard data’.
The new campaign has sought to address these issues head-on by releasing research saying ‘soft skills’ are worth £88 billion to the UK economy (a value that is rising every year). They are seeking to quantify the effect that such skills have on organisations and, by extension, the economy as a while. It will be interesting to see if the campaign seeks to maintain this emphasis on quantification moving forward.

In my view, there must be a balance. We do need to demonstrate impact – of course we do – and we need more rigour than perhaps we have had in the past. My own field of employee engagement is a good example; the range of metrics now being employed is helping practitioners both to identify strengths and weaknesses in methodologies and to make the case for further investment. But in engagement, as with ‘soft skills’ more widely, we must be wary of trying to force out statistics that don’t make sense. It’s not always possible to describe the precise effect of human interaction (or the skills that inform this) on performance in terms of numbers or percentage points. Some degree of assessment and reasoned interpretation will always be required.  And the fact that we can’t create a numerical causal link doesn’t mean ‘soft skills’ don’t have a major impact. 
So I hope the campaign goes well and that as many of us as possible contribute to its consultation. I hope it identifies new ways of nurturing such skills and that, through the ideas it uncovers, the whole area attracts greater and more consistent acclaim. I just believe metrics should be an element of the discussion, not the substance.