Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hard Skills and Soft Skills: Differences Real or Unreal?

A manager’s competency set is expected to comprise both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are those that reflect technical and analytical capabilities while soft skills are those that deal with communication and collaboration capabilities. A well-rounded manager should be adept in both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills, which are technical and professional in nature, are predominantly acquired through education while the soft skills are predominantly personality based, and are improved through experience. Trainers typically tend to view these as two distinct streams of learning and development. Hard skills are rarely imparted in organizations except through on the job training. Each time an equipment or facility is upgraded or product and process specifications are bettered, experience of working with the changes teaches the employees new hard skills. On an exceptional basis, employees also are retooled through customized educational programs in universities.

On the other hand, experience which helps the employees upgrade their hard skills ironically very often leads to hardening of soft skills. Employees tend to become somewhat egoistic and rigid (depending on their cultural evolution) as well as authoritative or withdrawn (depending on whether they are extroverted or introverted respectively). Functions become rigid organizations within organizations, with growing inter-functional distances, making communication and collaboration exceedingly difficult, both at functional and individual levels. Given these cultural characteristics, the concentration of organizations tends to be on developing the soft skills of employees on one hand and changing the cultural dynamics of the organization on the other. Trainers and human resources managers generally concur that such programs usually have limited impact and fail to bring about fundamental and lasting improvements to employee soft skills or organizational cultural dynamics.

Hard versus soft; or hard with soft?

The distinction between hard skills and soft skills is real but the attempt to treat them as two distinct streams of continuing education is unreal. A person’s soft skills determine how open he or she is to improve his or her hard skills. Hard skills are not merely skills of engineering or accountancy that are robotically imparted. Hard skills also require significant person to person interaction to imbibe new skills. A person who is egoistic and rigid is more likely to be closed to asking questions and seeking knowledge than a humble and flexible person who is likely to be all eager and willing to learn new knowledge. More importantly, hard skills are likely to involve a host of technical and professional disciplines which need to work together to deliver the total systemic effectiveness. A manufacturing engineer, for example, would need to understand how his machine tools operate and fail, and how they are maintained. A maintenance engineer must understand why and how design and manufacturing tolerances are achieved. Clearly, interpersonal communication and collaboration, across technical functions, are vital to optimize the hard skill learning processes.

Equally, soft skills do not exist in vacuum. The soft skills of communication, collaboration, and time management, for example, may be required in teamwork for designing products, conducting operations, managing finances or developing markets. However, these goals themselves require hard skills. Without hard skills that lead to design creativity, manufacturing excellence, accounting integrity and market mapping these hard jobs cannot happen successfully. Possession of mere soft skills cannot lead to delivery of technical and functional jobs. Also, in addition, several of the soft skills require a measure of hard skills, be it language skills, computer skills or presentation skills, to be expressive, efficient and effective. It goes without further elaboration that hard skills and soft skills are integral to each other, and even symbiotic to each other. Organizations must find holistic paradigms to impart both the kinds of skills amongst the employees simultaneously.

Laying the foundations

In the Indian educational scenario, technical and professional educational stream is considered distinct from the language and fine arts educational stream. As one may surmise, the latter stream provides the foundations of soft skills. In technical and professional institutions, language courses are limited probably to just one semester and fine arts courses are virtually non-existent. As a result, students could be technically brilliant but tend to be lagging in terms of soft skills. As a converse phenomenon, arts and language courses have very few technical and professional subjects that could enhance the conceptual and analytical capabilities of a student. This differentiation is further accentuated by the fact that from the school going stage itself, the school children and their parents tend to zero in on their preferred careers and accordingly focus on the related subjects, and defocus on what they consider to be unrelated subjects. The foundations of basic education thus tend to be less than holistic, even if they are specialty oriented. Efforts by certain higher technological institutions such as the IITs to have one or two language or business communication and technical writing courses hardly provide complete alleviation.

Even in the job scenario, given that the emphasis of the organizations is on achieving immediate delivery from its employees, most training programs focus on adapting and updating the hard skills rather than on overcoming the deficiencies of soft skills. As a result, by the time someone reaches a managerial position some of the soft skills needed for getting effective delivery from others or effective collaboration with peer managers would be found to be missing, impacting organizational performance. Although organizations mount soft skills programs for middle level and senior level managers, such attempt would often be a case of “too little, and too late”. The problem is also accentuated by the “ego hurt” seniors feel when they are expected to develop the soft skills at a late stage, and the consequent defensive as well as aggressive reactions, making the desired culture of collaborative delivery even more elusive in an organization. Another negative consequence of this distinction is that technical specialists tend to get confined to line functions while non-technical people gravitate towards staff functions, making holistic leadership development to meet the requirements of apex positions even more challenging.

Easy to lose, difficult to acquire

The hard skills and soft skills are inversely correlated with learning and longevity. Hard skills are acquired in a relatively well-structured manner through the educational system but are easy to lose. As employees become accustomed to operate in established technological systems of firms, the gap between emerging technologies and established technologies widens leading to knowledge obsolescence. As the employees move up the hierarchy, ecosystems and management processes distance the employees from their machines, as a result of which they lose the hard skills relatively easily. The author’s observation is that employees tend to be technologically and professionally contemporary in the first one-third of their career span and later on experience a decline in their hard skills. The hard skills are easy to lose for employees who do not make special efforts to update themselves. There is no permanence at all in hard skills, and as certain organizations and certain employees encourage acquisition of soft skills, hard skills become easier to lose.

In contrast, soft skills are more difficult to acquire but once acquired tend to be more difficult to lose. Soft skills are acquired not merely through educational stream but more importantly through life experience itself. The propensity to acquire certain, if not all, soft skills is very much a personality related matter too, and in a sense tends to be a genetically influenced factor too. Depending on the congeniality levels that existed in family, school and college environments, a person could be positioned in terms of propensity to absorb soft skills. Interpersonal skills are experiential and once acquired are difficult to lose. While one does comes across instances of aggressive people mellowing or self-effacing people becoming more emphatic over a lifetime, basic changes in personality disposition are difficult to come by. While language skills may be easy to acquire equally by diverse people, the manner in which communication is conceptualized and delivered by each person would continue to be personality-specific. While people may be trained to adopt a particular style of interpersonal relationship, more often than not, adopted behaviors tend to wilt and natural behaviors are likely to surface under stressful circumstances.

C-suite requirements

The way hard skills and soft skills are taught in educational institutions, the manner in which they are imparted by family and social ecosystems and finally are updated by on-the-job experiences ironically run counter to the need to develop holistic business or corporate leadership. Like several of the managerial templates, the managerial grid which advocates that leaders should have more of strategic skills and less of technical skills, or put in a different way more of soft skills and less of hard skills, at leadership level is deficient. A music conductor, however eminent, he or she is cannot afford to forget how the notes are written. A surgeon, the more eminent he is the more skillful, the more technologically updated and the more behaviorally competent, he must be. The requirements of the corporate C suite are no different, and require holistic technologically and behaviorally competent leaders. The concept that with experience and hierarchical progression, the typical executive can afford to lose the hard skills and needs to be adept only at soft skills is ill placed.

The C-suite leader, the CXO of whatever domain or the CEO himself or herself, needs to keep the technical and professional competencies as strong and as updated they have been at the beginning of the career, and also have the appreciation of what soft skills can do to enhance the leadership. The educational approaches and the experiential strategies which make the hard skills easy to lose and soft skills difficult to acquire need a complete redefinition. If these development models are re-tuned to develop holistic students, holistic executives and holistic managers who are high on both hard skills and soft skills we would have a C-suite bench that is far larger and richer than what India, Inc has at present. The enriched C-suite would be a great leading factor in India’s quest for globalization. There would be a greater all-round entrepreneurial and big business development in the country and a greater emergence of Indian multinational corporations across the globe. It is time that Indian executives, managers and leaders who are strong on either of hard skills and soft skills appreciate the need to become equally strong on the other dimension.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 6, 2012

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