What we have traditionally referred to as soft skills are rather more resilient than their title might imply
The default response, when we’re confronted with industry change, is often a mild panic. This is as true in HR as it is within the rest of the executive team.
Often, in the maelstrom of change, we run the risk of overstaffing in one department, understaffing in another or else investing in training and developing skills sets that may have a short shelf life or limited portability.
This fear of change is hardly surprising given the enormous impact even small changes can have on how we work, who we work for and indeed who we compete against.
However, our research, which aligns with research conducted in the US and Europe, indicates that key to navigating change with confidence and competence is an emphasis on what will remain the same.
In our research, this led to an investigation into Forever Skills. So, what are these Forever Skills that leave our teams future proof, change ready and high performing? And what does it mean for the world of HR?
In identifying these skills, we sought to identify which skills had been historically useful, were in high demand currently and that were predicted by futurists, economists, leaders and educators as the least likely to be impacted by outsourcing, off-shoring and automation by artificial intelligence and robotics.
It turns out that what we have traditionally referred to as soft skills are rather more resilient than their title might imply.
The skills we identified clustered roughly into three categories:
- Creative Skills
- Communication Skills
- Control Skills
But what do these actually mean for those of us involved in HR, talent development, hiring and team building?
The World Economic Forum, EY and IBM have all released studies identifying creative problem solving as the critical skill for the 21st Century. The immediate issue we face with this prediction is that we tend to think of creativity as a talent we are either born with, or not. This definition, in our estimation, is a fallacy.
In our research, we defined skills as “capabilities of commercial or social value that may be learned, developed or nurtured.” Creativity definitely fits within this definition.
However, creativity skills involve much more than problem solving and included such skills as insight creation and meaning making, an ability to convert raw resources into more valuable products, services and assets as well as cognitive agility – a capacity to move from one context to another with great flexibility. In other words, to learn, unlearn and relearn.
Creativity Skills, therefore, might be best described as the ability to solve problems or add value in ways we haven’t seen before.
Communication Skills: we also emphasised as the most important consideration in transitioning from competent professional to capable leader.
These communication skills included the ability to generate influence around our ideas and change, to build trust (in an increasingly cynical world), to translate information across contexts, cultures and generations as well as a deftness in helping diverse skills and professionals to become a collaborative, high performing team.
And yet, despite the importance that communication skills were attributed in our research, they are also broadly considered to be lacking and underdeveloped in our current workforce and where leaders and human resources teams are investing a great deal of their training budgets.
The final category is the rather imperfectly named, control skills. The control skills were characterised by such disciplines as self-control and self-awareness, the competent management of resources including time, data and intellectual property, an ability to build consensus at a cultural level and establish social norms and order and a willingness and a proficiency in implementation – to move from ideas into action.
In the course of our research many era-based skills were also raised, but these tended to be more vulnerable to the winds of commercial fashion. At some point, AI will likely be able to (and hopefully trusted to) self-code, rendering today’s “hot hard skill” as the black-smithing of future generations.
Which is not to say that these technical skills are not worth investing in. Far from it, we must of course make the most of the present whilst developing the future.
However, if those of us working in HR, team planning and talent retention and development are to, as much as possible, future proof our workforce and skill our teams for high performance, it makes sense to also play the long game and invest in “forever”.
Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory are the co-authors of Forever Skills and co-founders of The Impossible Institute