Being human: some hard truths about soft skills

Written by
Chris Kirk

03 May 2017

03 May 2017 • by Chris Kirk

What are soft skills?

“What powers economic growth? It’s not technology – technology is a raw material. What makes human beings unique is one thing – creativity. All else are subsets.” Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class.

There are many different definitions for soft skills – which is potentially a problem in its own right. But generally they are the skills that fall in the gap between technical skills, experience and academic ability - a combination of creative thinking, interpersonal skills, common sense, attitudes, social intelligence, work ethic and communication skills. 

For some it is about the ability to problem solve and for others, soft skills help employees navigate the grey area that is ‘expected behaviour’ in and beyond the workplace.

One thing that most people will agree on is that they are emerging as one of the critical factors for success in 21st century business in the Middle East. With the backdrop of increasing globalisation and disruption from digital technology, and with the rapid advancement and adoption of AI and automation changing the nature of the workplace, soft skills are under the spotlight more than ever. In fact, calling them ‘soft’ is doing those skills a massive injustice, as they are at the hard edge of business life.

Why is everyone talking about them?

The City & Guilds Group recently supported the ASHRM conference in Dubai, and it’s fair to say soft skills – or lack thereof – was a core topic of discussion. The conversations at ASHRM also echoed the key findings in research the Group conducted in conjunction with Changeboard, showing that with 73% of Saudi employers expecting their business to grow in the next five years, there will be a pressing need to plug the soft skills gap. Over a third (35%) cited soft skills as being difficult to find amongst the potential workforce and new recruits. 

As Saeed Al Mabrouk, Head of Strategic HR at Abunayyan Holding said: “The first thing we look for once we spot a good profile is attitude. The behaviour of a candidate is more important than his or her experience. You can teach someone, but it’s very hard to change someone’s attitude.”

Soft skills have also been brought into hard focus because of the changing nature of the workforce. If we take the gig economy in the first instance, this involves individuals working on multiple, generally short-term contracts – and securing these contracts depends on being able to demonstrate quickly that they have the right skills for the job. People working in the ‘gig’ fashion are often in demand because of their experience and specific technical skills. But because of the nature of their work, they may lack the formal training, the interpersonal skills focus, or recognition of their soft skills – even though demonstrating these skills will help them stand out from their fellow gig workers. 

Next, let’s take Artificial Intelligence and automation. If you believe the predictions, robots will replace millions of jobs across the world. But it’s hard to see how they could carry out tasks such as people management, leadership, communication or negotiation. Soft skills – or perhaps we could call them ‘human skills’ – will be more in demand than ever.  

Finally, there is the recognition of the contribution that SMEs are making to the economy. As one respondent in the research articulated it, “small and medium-sized enterprises are among the most important agents of economic growth”. Normally less reliant on hierarchical structures, the need for soft skills like creative problem solving and communicating effectively and responsibly are even more key for SMEs, where there aren’t central functions or middle managers taking on much of this responsibility.

It's about objective recognition

Encouragingly, the importance of capturing and surfacing people’s full set of skills (not just their technical achievements or academic qualifications) is starting to be acknowledged by employers. Alongside other more established workplace programmes like cultural and wellbeing initiatives, the reality is that people will stay in jobs and strive to improve their performance if they are rewarded and recognised.

Using tools like digital credentialing provides a huge opportunity here. As a new data-rich way to objectively capture and share skills and achievements, they can be combined to provide a fuller picture of an employee’s capabilities, especially when used to surface soft skills. And, it can act as a permanent evidence-based record that travels with employees (and those individual gig contractors) wherever they go, which can be easily recognized and understood by employers as they match their jobs to be done with the talent at their disposal. 

It can also alert recruiters to potential new talent, and provide them with a much broader and objective picture of someone’s skills. Not only that, but it can help those same organisations understand where they might need to provide further support, training and mentoring for their existing staff – particularly around those all-important human skills. Seeing every skill has never been so important and we all need to play a role in helping make the invisible, visible.

As our world becomes increasingly digital – and indeed as the workforce becomes more global and mobile – businesses and individuals will have to think about how to keep up – not just in terms of the skills they develop and refine, but how they objectively present those skills to the wider world. 

Chris is MD at Digitalme