Hard Skills vs Soft Skills? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

A few weeks ago, the Australian Government announced changes to funding of university degrees, prioritising the jobs and professions they said would be most in demand in the future – especially in a post-pandemic future. Predictably, the industries with more funding were happy, and there was an outcry from those with less funding – in particular, the humanities.

As an example of the latter, one humanities professor was quoted this way in the media:

Given what is happening in the world right now, she said the skills taught on these [humanities] courses, including critical thinking, communication, ethics, creativity, innovation and human-centred decision-making, are more important than ever.

I don’t want to open the Pandora’s Box of the politics of university funding, but I do want to comment on what I think is muddled thinking here.

Obviously, this professor is pushing her own barrow here, and this is a nice sound-bite for a media article. But this kind of thinking is completely wrong.

Well … not COMPLETELY wrong.

Let me take that back. I 100% agree with her these skills are more important than ever. But she implies they are taught only in humanities courses, and that’s simply not true.

Even 30 years ago, in my science degree, we learned critical thinking, communication, creativity, and innovation – in fact, they were essential skills for a software developer. And I’m sure the contemporary version would teach human-centred design. And ethics is taught in courses such as physiotherapy.

This is not about arts vs science!

It’s easy to make this a debate about which disciplines are more important. The government has made some decisions based on future job prospects, and we can argue endlessly about these decisions.

But instead of taking sides based on industry, discipline, or profession, let’s talk about the skills for the future.

In a nutshell: We need “deep” skills and “wide” skills.

Deep skills are the skills unique to a job, profession, industry, or discipline. You want a cardiologist to know about heart surgery, an auto mechanic to know about cars, a cellist in an orchestra to know how to play the cello, an Instagram marketing consultant to know about Instagram marketing, and so on. If you don’t have those skills, you can’t do that job.

You expect these people to learn those skills through university, TAFE, or some other source. And then you expect them to keep up-to-date – through their professional association, attending conferences and seminars, doing online courses, or whatever.

We also all need “wide” skills.

These are the transferable skills that span different disciplines, and they apply whether your deep skills are in science, humanities, or any other discipline. Yes, these include the things that humanities professor mentioned – like communication, ethics, and problem solving.

Some people refer to these as “soft skills”, usually to suggest these are more about people than technology. But that’s the wrong distinction, because they include technology-related skills that aren’t specific to a discipline. That’s why I call them “wide” skills, because they are transferable and span many disciplines.

The Institute For the Future, the World Economic Forum, and many other organisations have identified some of these wide skills. Here are just a handful of examples …

We’re bombarded by more information than ever before, and it’s not possible to shut it out in the hope you can catch up later. That’s why we need the skill of Cognitive Load Management, which is about being comfortable (or at least, not too uncomfortable) with managing this information. Rather than feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you have strategies to filter and prioritise it effectively. In the olden days, we called this time management or goal setting. This is the new and improved version, which incorporates those older ideas, but recognises we’re now operating in a faster world with exponentially more inputs.

With the wider range of communication tools now, people want their leaders to have Leadership By Influence. You have followers because you’re influential and respected, not just because you have greyer hair, a corner office, a better job title, or a higher income. This is about being a leader because you are an authority, not because you have authority. In the workplace, managers must also be mentors; and in the community, leaders need to earn respect through well-considered decisions based on evidence.

The explosion in online communication tools lead to an importance in the skill of New Media Literacy, which is about being comfortable with the constant changes in how we communicate – for example, online communication platforms, new social media tools, multimedia, storytelling (and how it’s changed), and shorter attention spans. We need to be willing to access, adopt, and adapt whatever media are most appropriate and effective for different audiences.

Our education system is woefully inadequate in building numeracy skills. Instead of being able to do times tables in your head (a useless skill, now that you can ask Siri or Google), we need the skill of Computational Thinking. This is about “being good with numbers”, in the sense of being able to present and interpret data, charts, and statistics – and ask intelligent questions about them. For example, during the current coronavirus pandemic – which affects everybody – we should at least have a basic understanding of “flattening the curve”, logarithmic scales on graphs, and “excess deaths”.

The World Economic Forum predicts we all need about 25 days (yes, five weeks!) of training each year to “upskill” for the future. That’s why we need the skill of Active Learning, which is about proactively choosing to be a lifelong learner, and actively engaging in learning, re-learning, and even “unlearning” what’s no longer true. It’s also about using your skill of cognitive load management to choose the best learning channels – online and offline, digital and physical, alone and with others, and so on.

How are YOU helping your people develop their deep and wide skills?

I’ve only listed a few of these wide skills, but I think you get the idea. The key is that these are transferable skills that span multiple disciplines, and are not just “soft skills”.

In my experience, many organisations have clear learning paths for deep skills, but far fewer learning opportunities for wide skills. Even when those latter skills are taught, they are often taught in specific circumstances (For example, a small cohort of “emerging leaders” might be taught leadership skills).

If you’re a leader, manager, or HR professional, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Are we biased towards deep skills at the expense of wide skills?
  2. For each person in our team, what wide skills could help them perform better?
  3. What am I doing to develop my OWN wide skills?

I said many organisations have neglected these wide skills, but that’s not true of everybody. I’ve also been fortunate to work with some exceptional organisations that put the resources into teaching wide skills, because they know these are the skills for future-proofing their teams and organisations.

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