Talent Management

Soft skills: an essential in a digitising world

24 Jun 2020

With the increased proliferation and advancement of AI technologies, it is becoming more important for employees to develop the creative, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills that differentiate humans from AI. These skills are broadly referred to as ‘soft skills’.
But what exactly are ‘soft skills’? Which skills fall under this label, and how can employers approach the challenge of developing these competencies?

Types of Soft Skills

The term ‘soft skills’ refers to skills used by most people on a daily basis that are difficult to define and quantify. These skills are ‘evergreen’, meaning they remain important regardless of technological change or developments in the workplace. To some extent they are ‘innate’, meaning that they are talents that people naturally have due to their personality, rather than having studied them specifically. However, soft skills can still be developed and strengthened through training and professional experience.

The European Youth Portal divides soft skills into three separate categories:

Communication skills

These are the skills we use to build rapport between individuals, and within groups. Since these skills deal with emotional intelligence, they are not easily replicable by AI. In practical terms, communication skills used in the workplace might include:

  • Active listening
  • Empathy
  • Writing fluency
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership abilities

Creativity

Creativity is a generative process of the human brain, by which it spontaneously comes up with new ideas. Artificial intelligence has not yet overtaken the human capacity for creativity. A paper by Anton Oleinik of the Memorial University of Newfoundland suggests that human brains outperform artificial neural networks in three key facets of creativity: identifying and interpreting symbols, modeling social action, and making predictions.

Analytical skills

Some complex analytical abilities can also be considered soft skills. These include:

  • Decision-making
  • Self motivation
  • Time management
  • Complex problem-solving

State of Soft Skills in Today’s Workplace

Now that we have identified what soft skills are, let’s have a look at the current state of the workplace. Are organisations and individuals meeting their goals when it comes to soft skills?
The answer, broadly, is that there is still room for improvement. The disparity between the skills needed in the job market and the skills currently held by the workforce is called the ‘skills gap’. The European Skills and Jobs (ESJ) survey has shown that about 30 percent of European employees do not have the skills required for their jobs, and 45 percent of adult workers believe their skills can be better developed or utilised at work.

A 2018 report analysing the results of the ESJ survey suggests that some of the soft skills that workers lack are planning, adaptability, and critical thinking. These key competencies are especially important in digital workplaces, where a large amount of information is present. Moreover, teamwork, cooperation, and leadership skills are also highly prized in today’s increasingly horizontal business hierarchies. In jobs with rising projected employment, some of the soft skills that are most in demand are planning and organisation, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork.

Why are soft skills important?

We have now explained what soft skills are, and shown that there is a ‘skills gap’ between the competencies individuals need in the workplace, and the ones they currently possess. Here, we will dive deeper into the necessity of soft skills in today’s market.

Demand in the Current Workplace

Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the United States reveals that soft skills are already very important to employers. Among those surveyed:

  •  83 percent of respondents said that they would look for ‘problem-solving skills’ on a candidate’s CV,
  • 83 percent looked for the ‘ability to work in a team’,
  • 80 percent looked for ‘written communication skills’,
  • 73 percent looked for ‘leadership’,
  • 68 percent looked for a ‘strong work ethic’.

The survey results showed that these soft skills were even more important to employers than hard skills, such as ‘analytical/quantitative skills’ (67.5 percent), ‘technical skills’ (60 percent) or ‘computer skills’ (50 percent).
Moreover, soft skills are sought after for employees at all levels of an organisation. A study by professional networking website LinkedIn showed that ‘communication’ and ‘organisation’ skills were the most desirable for entry-level employees. For managers and senior managers, ‘communication’ skills and a ‘friendly personality’ were the most important. For directors and those in leadership positions, the top skills included ‘teamwork’ and being ‘always punctual’.

Increasing relevance in the age of AI

As discussed above, an increasing number of employees are likely to need both hard and soft skills training in the coming decades, in order to close the ‘skills gap’.

While soft skills are already highly valued by employers, they are likely to become even more so as technology develops, because they may be some of the most difficult skills to automate. This is demonstrated by the fact that the most ‘difficult to automate’ professions overlap with the professions that most require soft skills.

Some of the fields that are least likely to ‘reduce [their] workforce due to automation’ are ‘Global Health & Healthcare’ and ‘Professional Services’, among others*. Similar fields, such as ‘Health, Wellness, and Fitness’ and ‘Human Resources’, are also particularly in need of soft skills. It should be noted, however, that the need for soft skills is in no way limited to those fields. These skills are necessary in every industry, and developing them can be useful for a variety of different types of organisations.

man looking through a camera lens

Difficulties in identifying soft skills

Finally, we will discuss some of the challenges that organisations currently face with soft skills development. While soft skills are highly desirable assets for employees to have, it can be difficult for employers to identify them in their workforce. Employers may also find it difficult to create an effective program for learning.

Goals for Soft Skills Development

We have already established that employers need and desire soft skills, and that many workers are entering the job market with gaps in their skill set. Evidently, there is a need for greater on-the-job skills training.

Skills development programs benefit both employees and employers. Employees want to engage in skills development: a survey of millenials by Deloitte revealed that 63 percent of respondents felt their leadership skills were not being fully developed at work. Skills development is seen by employees as a form of career development, which a 2018 study found is the second-most significant driver of employee engagement.

On the employer side, the decision to invest in skills development has many clear advantages—while reskilling an internal hire can take a year, it may cost as little as one-sixth as much as hiring an external candidate. In Deloitte’s 2019 Human Capital Trends Report, 86 percent of business leaders considered learning ‘important’ or ‘very important’ (although only 46 percent thought their organisation was ‘ready’ or ‘very ready’ to meet this challenge). If given the choice between training existing employees or hiring new talent, 77 percent would lean either ‘strongly’ or ‘moderately’ towards training.

Challenges currently faced in Soft Skills development

While soft skills development is clearly highly desirable, the ‘qualitative’ nature of soft skills can make creating an employee learning program a challenge.

One potential area of difficulty is in identifying soft skills among the workforce. In small teams, managers can identify the existing soft skills of employees by using their personal knowledge of the employee’s behaviour, coupled with regular performance evaluation questionnaires. However, this evaluation method is somewhat subjective, and may not always produce accurate results—for example, employees may behave differently with their managers than they do with their colleagues, especially during a performance evaluation. Moreover, some employees may feel comfortable coming to managers with concerns or asking for advice, while others keep to themselves.

Identifying soft skills in distributed organisations is made easier with Talentsoft’s Continuous Conversation tool.
Continuous Conversation is a simple and flexible cloud-based application that supports manager-employee feedback, discussions, and peer reviews. It aims to create a sense of purpose at work through a project-based approach that relies on the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) methodology. Data from Continuous Conversation is a valuable asset that can help managers better understand their workforce.
Continuous Conversation is part of Talentsoft’s Performance & Competencies suite, which includes additional tools such as appraisal forms, social feedback, and a participant panel.

In large organisations, the challenge of identifying soft skills is compounded even further. While managers may be very familiar with the teams they work with, they will not be familiar with all employees across the organisation. Potential problems and opportunities for collaboration become more difficult to spot at scale.

Once managers are able to identify employees’ current skills, they will be able to better understand the gaps and opportunities that exist among their workforce. They can then create a skills development plan that addresses their organisation’s needs, with a training program specifically geared towards soft skills.

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