From soft skills to core skills

In the past few days I was lucky enough to start the process of training all employees of a company in the so called soft skills, with a special focus on Teamwork, Leadership and Communication. It shows the real foresight of this company, who understood that these skills will be needed more than ever, as the pandemic showed that companies who have cultures built on such skills can really adapt fast to whatever is thrown at them.

Furthermore, these are skills which cannot be automated. The jobs that are likely to be automated are repetitive and routine. They range from reading X-rays, to truck driving, to stocking a warehouse. While much has been written about the sorts of jobs that are likely to be eliminated, another perspective that has not been examined in as much detail is to ask not which jobs will be eliminated but rather which aspects of any job can never be will be replaced by machines or technology

For example, consider the job of a medical doctor: It is clear that diagnosing illnesses will soon (if not already) be accomplished better by machines than humans. Machine learning is spectacularly effective when data sets are available for training and testing, which is the case for a wide range of diseases and ailments. However, what about sitting with a family to discuss treatment options? This is far less likely to be automated in the foreseeable future.

Now consider a profession at the other end of the status spectrum: barista. There is a lot of talk of having baristas replaced with industrial robot arms. However, let us contrast being a barista with being a bartender. People often strike up a conversation with the bartender. This job clearly is about more than just mixing drinks.

So as we can see from the simple examples above, we can easily parse these jobs into two components: the repetitive and routine one and the more interactive, unpredictable one that involves listening to and talking with patients or customers.

So what are the elements that will make the needed of homing and mastering soft skills even more important, as they will become evermore the needed “core skills” that cannot be managed by technology?

  • Emotion: Emotion plays an important role in human communication. It is critically involved in all forms of nonverbal communication and in empathy. But more than that, it is also plays a role in helping us to prioritize what we do, for example helping us decide what needs to be attended to right now as opposed to later in the evening. Emotion is not only complex and nuanced, it also interacts with many of our decision processes. The functioning of emotion has proven challenging to understand scientifically (although there has been progress), and is difficult to build into an automated system.
  • Context: Humans can easily take context into account when making decisions or having interactions with others. Context is particularly interesting because it is open ended — for instance, every time there’s a news story, it changes the context in which we operate. Moreover, changes in context can change not just how factors interact with each other, but can introduce new factors and reconfigure the organisation of factors in fundamental ways. This is a problem for machine learning, which operates on data sets that by definition were created previously, in a different context. Thus, taking context into account (as a congenial bartender can do effortlessly) is a challenge for automation.

Hence, our ability as humans to manage and utilise emotion and to take into account the effects of context are key ingredients of critical thinking, creative problem solving, effective communication, adaptive learning, and good judgment. It has proven very difficult to program machines to emulate such human knowledge and skills. Hence the importance that people get trained in such so called soft skills.

In fact, in my interactions with various clients across various industries and sectors, these so called soft skills are the very skills that employers consistently seek in job candidates. Many employers have come to realise that employing people hat are able to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems than qualification certificates or the so called hard skills.

Employers also seek candidates who have other sorts of “soft skills,” such as being able to learn quickly, to make good decisions and to work well with others. These sought-after abilities, of course, fit perfectly with the sorts of things that people, if properly trained, can do well and will continue to be difficult to automate.

Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that these so called “soft skills”are misnamed: These are the skills that are hardest to understand and systematize and the skills that give — and will continue to give —humans an edge over technology. These are the skills that will be needed most in a post-pandemic world which requires a higher level of adaptation and change.

At EMCS, we specialise in training people in teamwork, leadership, communication, creative thinking and intercultural communication. Our training is done with a hands on approach, whereby our training is focused on presenting theoretical approaches in a way that is adapted to a relevant way that can be easily related to the daily experience of employees and working teams.Please contact me on to discuss further.

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