Originally published by Anant Agarwal on LinkedIn: Data Reveals Why The 'Soft' In 'Soft Skills' Is A Major Misnomer
With a tight labor market and an increase in employees seeking to upskill for the skills transformation happening in the workplace, companies and business leaders are reassessing the skills they deem critical to success in their employees and job candidates.
In an interview earlier this year, Mark Cuban made a prediction that many people in the technical fields found shocking: in ten years, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree." His reasoning is that AI and automation will transform the job market so much that degrees that teach how to think in a big picture way and better collaborate will become more valuable. This is sound reasoning based on the current outlook for our economy and workforce, and a testament to why these types of skills are increasingly talked about.
The Data Shows It
Last year, Google announced the findings from an internal study that looked across teams to determine the most innovative and productive groups within the company. They found that their best teams weren’t the ones full of top scientists. Instead, their highest performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process. Further research revealed that important predictors of success within Google were skills like good communication, insights about others, and empathetic leadership. But it’s not just top tech companies that are finding value in these types of skills. A Twitter poll from edX found that people think teamwork and collaboration are the most helpful soft skills in the workplace, followed by critical thinking, public speaking and persuasive writing.
Many believe that the term “soft skills” is a misnomer. Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds. They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as “power skills.” A term favored (and perhaps pioneered) by Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College, who is an avid advocate for use of the word power over soft. That said, if power skills are so vital to innovation and to business success – even in the most technical fields – why are they so often overlooked?
Rethinking The Value Of Soft Skills
It’s a challenge to gain soft skills in today’s fast-paced corporate environment because these skills are not typically taught as a hybrid skillset with other “hard” skills. Learners often find themselves on one segmented track or another. For example, computer science disciplines that tend to focus solely on programming and hard skills; or liberal arts curricula that fosters critical thinking and creativity, but often leave graduates with non-linear career-paths.
In recent years – especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – most Humanities fields have experienced declining numbers in declared majors according to data from the Department of Education. There is a misconception that technical studies offer more employment options, and according to a recent poll of from Harris Insights & Analytics, more than 60% of students aged 14 to 23 look for a college degree to offer financial security as a chief benefit.
Combined with the misconception that employees naturally pick up soft skills, this has led to a general overemphasis on STEM-related concentrations. We are now realizing that this is not necessarily effective, but some people still question: can technical people develop soft skills?
Can Soft Skills Be Taught?
The short answer: yes. A study from MIT Sloan found that soft skills training – even in a factory setting – can improve work productivity in an organization. Initiated at five Bangalore factories, a controlled, twelve-month trial revealed that training in problem solving, communication, and decision-making yielded a 250 percent ROI in eight months. Success factors included an overall boost in worker productivity, faster turnaround on complex tasks, and even improved employee attendance.
Market trends, insights from top business leaders and industry data all point to one thing: soft skills are important and should not be overlooked. The next generation of workers, executives, and leadership will need to have a hybrid skill set balancing an understanding of hard skills, like programming and analytics, with “power skills.”
Google and others are discovering the value of soft skills just from looking within their own companies. But it will take two fundamental changes in mindset to help workers at large achieve this hybrid skill set: 1) unified recognition of the value that strong soft skills bring to a team and 2) the will and resources to foster this valuable skill set in employees. Perhaps the first step is to stop using the word “soft” and champion the word “power.” With this mindset, we can get there.
This article original appeared on Forbes.com.