The term “soft skills” is commonly used, but it is more accurate to define these skills as part of the behavioral skills that are needed in the workplace that are no less important than “hard skills” (technical skills) and, sometimes, that are more difficult to master.
Kaplan Leadership & Professional Development recently surveyed more than 800 workplace professionals with supervisory responsibility and found that the No. 1 challenge in hiring and developing entry-level employees is finding new hires with strong communication/people skills.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, also identified these behavioral skills as the largest skills gap in the U.S. After LinkedIn analyzed 940,000 job listings, he told CNBC, “Interpersonal skills is where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance.” Weiner’s claim echoes the 2014 U.K. National Employer Skills Survey, which found that 15% of organizations reported skills gaps, between one-third and two-fifths of which were in soft skills.
This challenge presents a great opportunity for the learning function to prove its value to the business. In order to seize that opportunity, there are a few matters to consider; most importantly, while there will be a demand to provide more training, it will most likely be have to be without incurring additional cost. With that in mind, here are three steps to address behavioral issues involving the communication/people skills problem.
1. Recognize the Breadth and Depth of the Gap
There is evidence (for example, see Jean Twenge’s book “iGen”) that suggests while members of Generation Z are entering the workforce with a host of digital, social media and other skills, they may be without some of the interpersonal skills their parents’ generation entered the workplace with. Some of these skills are basic to navigating the social interactions that make up the workplace – working with different generations, correctly setting the tone and tenor of client interactions, projecting the professional demeanor, etc.
These skills gaps are by no means impossible to fix, but they need attention during the onboarding process through the personal customization, social visibility and approval that have characterized this generation’s experience outside of work.
Developing these skills is not just an issue for people entering the workforce. Looking through the other end of the generational lens, the digital age demands that the baby boomers work on their skills, too. For example, effective interpersonal skills in the 21st century extends to managing your digital footprint across social and professional media platforms.
2. Accept That the Age of the Enthusiastic Amateur in the Learning Function Is Over
Managing the development of behavioral skills now needs greater rigor and professional understanding. Budget constraints mean that the learning the training function provides must be supported by the best evidence available. This may mean slaughtering some of the “sacred cows” of L&D and replacing the folk psychology that underpins much of professional learning with evidence-based learning science. For example, there are vast training spends on popular psychometrics instruments with no evidence of validity.
The need for greater rigor is even more important in terms of how organizations deliver learning. When time is limited and the means of delivery are changing, there is a greater need for learning professionals’ work to be informed by current understanding rather than by intuition or “common sense.” For example, while much learning makes a virtue of being easy, the reality is that an element of discomfort is necessary in order to learn. Indeed, when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer (see Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel’s book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”). Equally, while organizations often place an emphasis a learner’s need to reflect, which is good and necessary, as humans, we are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we are not. Therefore, learners need coaching and mentoring in addition to their self-assessment.
3. Prepare Your L&D Specialists of Today to Be the Learning Architects of Tomorrow
Developing effective interpersonal skills takes time. As an L&D professional, you know that learning is a process, not a performance. Learners need to access the personal motivation to learn, to input new insights and learn new skills. They need to scaffold upon existing knowledge, and, most importantly, they must put their learning to work to apply and embed it in the workplace.
Of course, this type of learning sounds like a tall order, for vast numbers – with a large bill attached. Faced with similar problems in the past, L&D has turned to the learning management system (LMS) to offer the solution. With a few exceptions, however, they have failed to deliver, most with low levels of engagement and unproven efficacy, despite the significant financial investment they entailed. Furthermore, the LMS has dealt in online technical or content-based training rather than behavioral skills.
The next generation of LMS will be a learning ecosystem that uses best practices in learning design to connect and choreograph online learning with workplace applications and one-to-one coaching. This approach will democratize learning by offering customized learning that provides both the scale required across the enterprise and the personalized element that is crucial to engaging the individual. It is learning that works in the context where it is applied. But it will require learning architects who can envision and create the best solution for their business.
The issue of interpersonal skills training is another example of the challenges facing the workplace that require a new kind of learning professional – informed by learning science, able to use technology to create effective learning, and able to use the tools of learning governance to evaluate progress and track costs. It may seem like a daunting ask, but nothing less will do if L&D is to close this behavioral skills gap and, more importantly, implement learning solutions that are scalable, impactful and cost-effective.