It’s never been more crucial for firms to invest in soft skills – and it’s not difficult for L&D to make the business case for investment either.
The crucial importance of soft skills to organisations of all shapes and sizes is not a new phenomenon. ‘Soft’ skills – such as communication, creativity, and problem solving – often have ‘hard’ outcomes for businesses.
An Institute of Directors (IoD) report earlier this year highlighted that the impact of new technologies is putting renewed emphasis on softer skills, ie the attitudes and aptitudes that make graduates truly ‘work ready’. With at least 15 million current jobs expected to be lost to automation technologies and robotics, most of the roles created to replace these jobs will be in areas not yet invented. Facing this future, the value of soft skills is only set to rise.
The reality is that businesses are already struggling from a shortage of candidates equipped with these skills. In 2015, IoD members said that the lack of soft skills in the labour market was their number one barrier to growth – ranking ahead of factors such as the economic health of the country, taxes and regulations, and even access to finance. I have seen this same story coming from the many employers who I support across my role at The Open University. Many tell me that the candidates applying to their organisations are not sufficiently prepared for the world of work.
There can certainly be a feeling that the traditional format of education is primarily concerned with academic theory, which cannot be related to day-to-day working practices. According to the CIB (pdf), around half of businesses are not satisfied with the work experience possessed by school leavers. To solve this problem, we have to look at how businesses can work with education providers to design development programmes that meet desired workplace requirements.
One approach is to build a truly practice-based solution. Courses that can be delivered flexibly – online or through mobile apps, for instance – offer employees the chance to engage in learning activities that fit around their daily work. Delivering training in this way encourages individuals to flex their soft-skill muscles, as they are continually prompted to apply course material to the commercial realities of their day-to-day workplace. Learners’ behavioural, problem-solving and creative capabilities are then stretched and developed.
We also know that attitudes in the workplace are critical for business and are essential attributes for graduates aspiring to future leadership and management roles. The CBI’s survey on education and skills (pdf) points out that nearly 9 in 10 employers rank ‘attitude towards work’ as their top consideration when recruiting. Setting employees the challenge of completing training courses alongside their current roles helps to instil the self-motivation, time-management and personal responsibility – all things which so many employers report a shortage of.
Overwhelmingly, businesses report (pdf) that soft skills in the workplace are central to commercial success. The role that L&D and HR professionals play in developing and stretching these skills for all employees – and not only new recruits – is therefore key to overall business success, but of course there is a constant need to demonstrate return on investment.
When focusing on soft skills, where the aim is to encourage behavioural and attitudinal change, evaluation should centre on areas such as engagement levels. Focus groups, questionnaires and in-depth conversations with managers, are all tools that measure culture and values, and therefore are particularly useful when measuring change in soft skills.
It is essential that L&D professionals cast the net wide when measuring the impact: research by London Economics (pdf) suggests a ‘halo effect’, where the benefits of training for one person spill over to boost productivity amongst the whole team.
A business decision to invest in the soft skills of just one individual is a decision to invest in hard outcomes across the organisation.
(CIPD) Steve Hill is director of external engagement at The Open University
1 Sep 2016