The growing importance of soft skills and the role of technology in developing them

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Written by Stephen Somerville on 9 November 2018 in Opinion

For Stephen Somerville, we need to unlock young people's soft skills potential and online learning is key. 

Amidst all the talk of how artificial intelligence, automation and robotics are reshaping the workplace, it’s easy to overlook the humble ‘soft skill’. In way of definition, the English Cambridge dictionary says soft skills are: “people's abilities to communicate with each other and work well together”.

In practice this requires a multitude of qualities, including but not limited to: creative thinking and problem solving, analytical skills and critical thinking, ethics and integrity. 

What role, then, do soft skills have in the digital age? In a lot of cases new technology is expected to ‘free up’ workers to focus on other parts of their job — the more ‘human parts’. Nursing is a commonly cited example.

Writing in Harvard Business Review earlier this month was M. Bridget Duffy, a founding member of The National Taskforce for Humanity in Healthcare. Duffy said: “Human-centered technologies simplify processes and allow nurses and doctors to spend more time at the bedside, where they can listen to patient stories, build trusted relationships and deliver personalized care.

"So, rather than making technology the centerpiece of care, it’s time to start using it to restore human connections and return people to purpose.”

The way to futureproof ourselves against such a reality is not by competing on the level of machines but by playing to our strengths as human beings.

Duffy’s assessment of the interplay between humans and technology goes to the heart of a larger issue in which soft skills play a key role. Fears remain that technology won’t augment existing roles, but replace them.

The way to futureproof ourselves against such a reality is not by competing on the level of machines but by playing to our strengths as human beings. So much is said of what technology can and will do. Less is said of what remains out of its reach — for now at least.

While some may argue that AI will evolve to the point of emotional intelligence, there remains a disparity between robotics current capabilities and the demands of certain roles.

Indeed, while there is plenty of scope for AI to extend its reach into overtly human domains — like the creative industries or the world of psychotherapy — the core components of such professions, which are run on soft skills, are likely to remain for at least the next decade. 

The need for soft skills isn't just important for those whose jobs are threatened by automation; graduates are lacking in soft skills too.

A recent report by Bloomberg Next, ‘Building Tomorrow’s Talent: Collaboration Can Close Emerging Skills Gap’, which spoke to 200 senior-level individuals — 100 each in academia and business — focusing on four primary themes: preparedness, skills, collaboration, and planning, revealed the extent of the shortage of soft skills.

The report found: “a majority of respondents said new hires are not well-prepared to perform at a high level in a professional environment, primarily because of insufficient soft skills.”

It also found “a surprising number of organizations lack formal plans and budgets for addressing the impact of emerging technologies”; and “business and academia are not collaborating as actively and effectively as they could be in preparing students for employment and reskilling individuals already in the workforce”.


The question then becomes how do we upskill employees’ soft skills? There is, of course, no one answer. Some businesses will choose to stick to external trainers and away days, but others may opt for online learning as a means of upskilling employees’ soft skills. 

To further illustrate the interplay between human soft skills and the growing influence of technology, it is fitting that we consider online learning platforms as a possible solution. Online learning allows employers to standardise training across the business, upskill at scale, and commit to professional development alongside other commitments while employees learn at their own pace. 

The nature of online courses also means they can be created at speed and are thus able to respond reactively to the particular shortage of soft skills identified.

If employers recognise specific needs within their own business, many online learning platforms also have the option of creating tailored courses to the specific needs of an individual business — something that can remain an internal learning and development tool or be made public with the added exposure that brings.   

Regardless of how employers upskill their staff’s soft skills, the need is clear and pressing. The world of work is changing and it’s what makes us human that stands to serve as a growing point of differentiation. 


About the author

Stephen Somerville is Managing Director, Government and Employer Partnerships at FutureLearn



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