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.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Reli
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.
The story of British influence on Indian Education, to which Macaulay's Minutes of 1835 belong, has been told in six distinct phases. Syed Nurullah and J P Naik's very popular and influential History of Indian Education calls these 'six acts' of the drama: From the beginning of Eighteenth Century to 1813 The British East India Company received its charter in 1600 but its activities did not include any Educational engagement till the Charter Act of 1698, which required the Company to maintain priests and schools, for its own staff and their children. And, so it was until the renewal of its charter in 1813, when the evangelical influence led to insistence of expansion of educational activities and allowing priests back into company territory. From 1813 to Wood's Education Despatch of 1854 The renewal of Charter in 1813 re-opened the debate, which seemed to have been settled in the early years of the company administration, between the Orientalis
I spent the last week at the Ideas for India conference in London. This conference had different strands, and brought the diaspora Indians, India watchers and a number of delegates from India together. Because Rahul Gandhi chose to attend - a rather last minute thing which changed the published agenda somewhat - the media narrative revolved around his 40-odd minutes of talk. And, of course, a sense of discomfort hung over the whole conference: A wholly new thing for me and it shows how much India has changed. Somehow, the people in India seemed to think that no conversation about India should happen anywhere else in the world, a strange thing for a country which is anxious to assert its global importance. Additionally, anything outside the official channel is seen as conspiracy. Gone are those days when the presumptive opposition candidate, the current Prime Minister, could freely interact with the diaspora Indians and slam Dr Manmohan Singh's lack of initiative; today, this wou
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.