Why soft skills are rising up the training agenda

In a future where Artificial Intelligence is predicted to change the face of work as we know it, employers are switching on to the fact that soft skills will become an increasingly important competence for their people.

The ‘robots’ may well have the ability to crunch the numbers and automate pretty much every core corporate process going, but when it comes to building relationships, encouraging collaboration and handling difficult conversations, the human touch will still be very much needed.

A recent article in People Management cites CIPD President Professor Cary Cooper calling for more recognition of the need for line managers in particular to be equipped with strong social and emotional intelligence. He has called for “every HR department in the country” to audit the people management and relational skills of employees – and to make training (or redeployment) a priority for those who are found lacking.

This growing emphasis on soft skills has implications for the way companies approach training and development programmes, many of which have traditionally had a strong focus on equipping people with hard technical and specialist skills. So as an HR or L&D practitioner, how can you ensure you are spending your training budget wisely and in a way that reflects the changing face of the job markets?

1. Assess what you need

Take a step back and ask yourself if the business is training the right people for the right jobs at the right time. It’s not unusual for the corporate training calendar to be repeated on a rolling basis, year on year, because the courses are popular and that’s what the business has traditionally delivered. But if the market the organisation serves is changing, and the way the business is developing products or delivering services is being revolutionised, then training provision needs to follow suit. Yes, of course you need to keep training people for the jobs they are doing now, but keeping ahead of the competition means also having an eye to the future. It’s about making sure HR has a place at the table when important, strategic decisions are being made, so that it can ensure people with the right skills are in place to support future growth or diversification plans.

2. Tap into leading-edge thinking

Thanks to advances in neuroscience we now understand a lot more about how people learn and retain knowledge. At the same time, technological developments have led to an explosion in virtual and just-in-time training provision. Recent research from Ashridge, for example, has found that to maximise leadership learning, people need to be stretched, challenged and even stressed (albeit in a supportive environment that stops them tipping over into cognitive shut-down). This high-pressure experiential learning helps people develop the muscle memory that will prepare them for dealing with difficult relational or crisis situations when they arise in real life. Research has also debunked the myth that soft skills can only be developed effectively in a face-to-face environment. We now know that if development is designed well, it can be just as effective in the virtual space. Keeping up with the latest thinking, tools and techniques will help ensure you are delivering training that hits the mark – although it’s important to make sure the approach is right for the business. Just because gamification and virtual reality is available, doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it.

3. Prioritise building self-awareness

Strong self-awareness is the foundation on which soft skills are built. If people are to develop good influencing, communication and relational skills, they first need to develop a deep understanding of their own personal working style, communication preferences and the impact they have on others. Feedback, from peers, managers, stakeholders and clients, is one of the best ways to help people begin to build self-awareness, although giving and receiving feedback is a concept many are uncomfortable with, and to be truly effective, it needs to sit within a culture where regular feedback is the norm. Psychometric assessements (Myers Briggs for example) can also be a good starting point for raising self-awareness – although tools like these should always be delivered and fed back by a trained facilitator.

4. Invest in coaching and mentoring

There are numerous courses out there designed to help people develop their Emotional Intelligence, improve their political nous or build negotiating and collaboration skills. These can be a highly effective way of helping people hone their soft skills, although as with any L&D offering, they vary widely in quality, depth and effectiveness. A formal training intervention is not, however, the only way for people to build their competence. Coaching, whether internal or external, can play a valuable role in helping people work their way through ‘live’ situations and discuss difficult issues in a safe environment. Less formal mentoring programmes, which give people a confidential sounding board and the benefit of other’s experience, are also a cost effective (and often overlooked) approach.

5. Hard skills are not dead yet

Although the need for many traditional or specialist technical skills may be starting to disappear, there are a few new ones emerging in their place that organisations ignore at their peril. Clearly, in a working future dominated by AI, there will be a need for people who can code, work with big data and manage the interface between people and the machines. Tomorrow’s leaders and managers don’t all have to have these detailed specialist skills, but what they do need is a basic understanding of how the likes of Bitcoin and Blockchain work, for example, and what threats and opportunities the continuing march of AI will bring to their business. If organisations don’t have people who understand the potential of new and emerging technologies, they won’t be able to exploit them and will soon fall behind more tech-savvy competitors.

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