Oh 'Soft' Skills!

The most misunderstood thing about 'soft' skills is that they are, well, soft!

Soft as in not tangible and demonstrable the way we understand skills to be. Skills, derived from the old English word, scele, or knowledge (which, in turn, comes from the old Norse word, skil, meaning knowledge, discernment or judgement), is expected to be visible. For Swordsmen or Surgeons, one can perhaps quite easily figure out what really matters, and a skilled person should be able to demonstrate that s/he possesses the necessary craft.

Soft Skills, a later derivation, gained traction only recently - this is a late Twentieth Century invention that became prominent in the new millennium - and in business context. With increasing standardisation and automation of work, imagination, relationships, judgement, communication abilities have become important for success in the business world. And, yet, these abilities are much harder to define and demand, in comparison with technical abilities or process competence, and hence, 'soft' - like the 'gift' of painters or musicians that distinguished the masters from mere technicians.

There is an inherent difference between 'gift' and 'skill' though. Gift is supposed to be divine, or at least unique to a special individual, whereas a skill can be acquired. 'Soft Skill', a surprising hybrid, lie somewhere in the middle, denoting a range of abilities from imagination, traditionally thought to be special, to empathy, one of the most common sentiments of the human race. What bundles all these abilities under the common label of 'soft skills' is that, apart from being needed in the business context, they are, borrowing an expression from Justice Potter Stewart: "I can not define it, but I know it when I see it."

This is why they are 'soft'. These abilities are hard to define or measure: How do you measure communication skills? Or Define 'Creativity'? etc. And, this is not so much about the absence of a scale. This is hard because these abilities are deeply context and culture dependent. Take, for example, communication skills. It is not just about making presentations but also keeping silent when the context demands it. A good communicator in IBM or Oracle, of world beating sales savvy, may not be so good in Rolls Royce, an Engineering oragnisation with proud heritage: It is a matter of style, medium, language and approach. Besides, different national cultures have different meanings for creativity, different societies view critical thinking differently and indeed, relationships have different meanings and requirements depending on context.

This has now become the Educators' holy grail, an answer why the supposedly educated - university graduates - often requires a year or two of bumbling around before they settle down and do well in a job. The key idea is to be able to define 'soft' skills in an universally acceptable way and create transparent benchmarks which are less culturally sensitive and context independent. In short, the idea is to make these abilities less tacit and more explicit.

This is the central concept behind the current wave of 'competency based education'. Very popular in the United States, this is now being spread across the world through the American Consultants and American Investment. The core idea appears deceptively familiar - that the best way to educate people is by exposing them to real work and by measuring their abilities of application of knowledge - and more in line with common sense and long traditions of apprenticeship systems in Europe and elsewhere. But, the revolutionary claim behind this - that this would not only create competence and abilities not just relevant for a given competence area or industry, but a higher level of 'soft' skill that can transcend the immediate work setting and be universally valuable - is much less well understood. Indeed, the proponents of this idea often admit that their language needs to evolve further: The familiarity of concepts such as apprenticeships, and the common sense notion of learning through practise, often obscure the central claim that such exposure makes learners fit not just for one kind of work, but wider life world.

The American origins of this idea is important to note, because this is uniquely, if invisibly, informed by American language and values. As the dominant business culture and commercial nation, the linguistic and cultural distinctiveness of the wider world are usually much less visible and relevant from an American vantage point, and hence, universality of soft skills may be a much more acceptable idea than it would be elsewhere. Besides, there are some elements of this thinking - improvisation as a craft, enterprise an an approach, extroversion as communication ideal - which are much more native to American world view than to other cultures. And, therefore, the very origins of the idea of universal and transparent 'soft' skills tell us about the two key issues in the current approach to 'soft skills' - that of language and values!

This is actually the key global conversation about 'soft skills' at this time: Can these be defined outside the setting of a trade, a workplace, a society or a nation? Is a 'global' person possible who may have abilities and approaches to excel in any setting, regardless of the trade and the locale? It may seem that the world is uniting around the American values and languages, at least within the context of business, and the idea of an universal business person may indeed be possible. However, such thinking may be devoid of historical time, and as we have seen in recent times, with the supposedly irrational outcomes such as the European Union Referendum in the UK or the nomination of Donald Trump for US Presidency by the Republican Party, that history has a way of biting back.

One final thought by way of conclusion: The possibility of universal 'soft skills' is indeed an existential question for mass Higher Education, which is built around the social consensus that education is the way to social and individual prosperity and defines its mission around not just educating a class of thinkers and intellectuals but also serving the broader requirements of the commercial society, that of educating the producers, the workers and the consumers. If work is automated and standardised, and the need of the hour is of 'relationship workers' rather than 'knowledge workers', a specialist education sector can only do the job if this new education can happen outside the specificity of trade and society. On the other hand, if 'soft skills' are really abilities within a specific language and values environment, it is the natural owners of these environments - commercial employers, social organisations and institutions - need to be deeply, intensively engaged in the act of education. This is indeed difficult without changing the current social structures and expectations around specialist sectors for education, commerce and social good, and without seeking to make employers far more locally engaged and socially responsive than they are today.


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