It’s 2021. Every L&D and HR leader knows that soft skills are more important than ever, right?
This may not be news to everyone, as the shift of focus from pure technical skills development to more holistic L&D programmes that include soft skills development has been gaining momentum for a number of years, and like many other aspects of life has been accelerated by the pandemic. However, for most businesses this acknowledgement and newfound sense of urgency to identify and deal with soft skills gaps is fairly new.
The fact that soft skills have now been brought into focus is great news for businesses and their employees who will benefit from additional development. The speed at which it has been brought to the forefront for many businesses is an issue though, as it has left them wondering how to approach soft skills development, and in many cases struggling to know if they have a problem with soft skills in the first place. This creates a difficult situation for L&D, as there is no point developing entire training programmes for soft skills development if it’s unclear where the problems are. In a recent article Ethical Angel COO, Martin Bleazard, highlighted 7 signs that show your business has a soft skills problem. This acts as a good first step to identifying issues within our teams, but the goal for all HR/L&D teams should be to effectively measure soft skills in the workplace.
In this article, we explore why it’s important to be measuring soft skills, and some of the challenges that you’re likely to face when trying to measure them.
Why Measuring Soft Skills is Important
As we have mentioned, without good measurement it isn’t possible to implement an effective training programme, but the reasons for assessing soft skills in the workplace go beyond that.
Soft Skills Gaps Can Easily Go Unidentified
Gaps in technical skills are easy to identify. The first sign is generally underperformance in an area of your business, which can be confirmed with skills assessments and a skills gap analysis. However, soft skills gaps can be harder to identify. The first sign may, like technical skills gaps, be underperformance in a specific business unit, but a standard skills assessment is likely to fail to identify the issue. In addition to this, soft skills gaps can create issues that have an ongoing toll on your business but take longer to come to light, such as poor prioritisation, teams working in silos or increased friction between teams.
Training Soft Skills is Harder
Soft skills training present a very unique challenge. It’s not as simple as providing an employee with a training course to improve their knowledge, as a strong knowledge of soft skills does not equal strong ability. Training programmes for soft skills have to go beyond the norm, providing employees with applied opportunities to practise their skills and the chance to reflect and digest feedback. All of this means more investment in both planning and training time, increasing the importance of providing employees with the right support to close skills gaps, as providing the wrong training at the wrong time will lead to wasted money and resources.
Strong Return on Investment
Finally, and arguably most importantly, the measurement, and subsequent development of soft skills delivers a significant return on investment, so getting it right can be a huge win for your business. Not convinced? Research into employee retention has shown that 46% of employees fail within the first 18 months, mostly due to a lack of soft skills. And research from Michigan University found that soft skills training was able to deliver an RoI of 256% as a result of a 12% increase in team productivity and retention.
The Challenges with Measuring Soft Skills in the Workplace
So, we understand the importance of measuring soft skills, but that is only half the battle. Once again, soft skills pose more of a challenge than technical skills when it comes to measurement. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but there are some important things to bear in mind when considering how to measure soft skills within your business.
They're not easily quantifiable
The first challenge with measuring soft skills is that they aren’t often seen as being easy to quantify. This makes them more challenging to measure and track both within a team and across an entire workforce, which in turn then makes it more challenging to design and implement effective training. However, it is essential that you implement a form of measurement that brings some level of quantifiable data to soft skills assessment within your business, as without it it will prove near to impossible to achieve and present improvements.
They can’t be tested through knowledge alone
The second challenge with assessing soft skills is that it cannot be done through knowledge alone. This is a key difference from technical skills where knowledge-based tests are often a strong indicator of skill level. The perfect example of this is someone who has a working knowledge of data security vs. someone who has a working knowledge of empathy or stress management. You would likely trust the former to put together a report on your business’ data security, but you wouldn’t necessarily trust the latter to support a team member who was struggling with stress without doing some additional analysis into their abilities.
Measurement can be very subjective
The final key challenge to be mindful of when measuring soft skill development in your business is how subjective it can be. This is due to the lack of objective data points and clearly defined milestones/skill levels within soft skills. This can often lead to businesses defaulting back to more qualitative forms of measurement such as manager feedback or observations. However, using qualitative data like this can lead to even higher levels of subjectivity. Therefore, it is important to broaden the forms of measurement used, and take data from a number of sources to ensure soft skills measurement is as objective as possible.
So as you can see, there are huge benefits to measuring soft skills properly, but there are also some key challenges that you must overcome to ensure measurement is objective and accurate.
In the next article in this series, we’ll be discussing the method of measurement that we use at Ethical Angel to deliver accurate soft skills reporting to our clients.