Stop Talking About Soft Skills
INSIGHTS – Josh Bersin
Developing the power skills that make a business truly hum takes effort.
Learning organizations typically group skills into two categories: The technical or “hard skills” needed for a job and the people-related “soft skills” that are usually relegated as “nice-to-haves,” but often not essential. I suggest we turn these categories upside down.
Technical skills are actually soft because they frequently change and are relatively easy to learn. On the other hand, soft skills are hard; they are difficult to build and take significant effort to maintain and master. A speaker at a conference recently came up with the idea to rename “soft skills” to “power skills,” because these are the skills that give you real power. IBM’s new research clearly points this out.
Indeed, the skills of the future are not technical, but behavioral. Certainly, engineers, designers and other technical people need to know how to build and fix things, and we all must know how to use our computers and work systems. But business leaders are now realizing they can buy or build these technical skills. Developing the power skills that make a business hum takes effort.
For instance, the “willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change” encompasses a huge, mixed bag of personality traits, mindsets, abilities and experiences. The “capacity for innovation and creativity” is another can of worms. Does this mean you can draw beautiful art? Or that you think outside the box? Or that you challenge authority, try to make things better and become the “squeaky wheel?”
Curiosity is another competency that is gaining corporate attention. Are your employees curious about why customers don’t buy a new product? Are they curious about ways to make customer services better? Are they interested in learning ways they can become knowledgeable and proficient?
Learning professionals must start focusing on power skills and give them equal – or even more – focus than technical skills. They are the most important skills we have, and we must build them, nourish them and continuously evolve them with vigor. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, Boeing and GE are not struggling with
technology strategies. They are struggling with problems of strategy, ethics, culture, growth and values. We need to talk about these skills, assess proficiencies and build academies to teach them.
Victoria Roberts, head of HR for truckstop.com, has taken the company to new levels of performance through a focus on relationships, authenticity, empathy (for customers and the team) and internal collaboration. She’s totally changed the culture, engagement and retention through power skills.
Simon Brown, the chief learning officer at Novartis, is emphasizing curiosity as a critical element of corporate culture. He and his team have created games, learning programs and discussions to drive curiosity into every part of the organization.
Power skills are developed by debate, discussion and challenges. We can build these kinds of development programs if we design around experiences, activities and group interactions, not just by providing content.
The bottom line is simple. We need to take power skills seriously. I hope we can throw away the soft skills terminology and accept that developing power skills is absolutely critical, takes investment and is key to the future.
Josh Bersin is an independent industry analyst and founder of Bersin™ by Deloitte. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.