Rise of the Machines: Are Soft Skills HR’s Next Frontier?

August 1, 2019 | 4 minute read
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By Sharlyn Lauby, President of ITM Group and author, writer, speaker

Pick up any newspaper and you’re likely to read about the growing need for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills to fuel our technology-driven economy. But talk to HR professionals and you’re likely to hear a different story. A recent survey by the Association for Talent Development (ATD) found that the top current and future skills gaps named were in communication, critical thinking, and managerial and supervisory skills—in other words, “soft” skills.

Is it any wonder? We rely on technology every day to solve problems and get answers (How do you spell Mississippi? Where is the nearest gas station? When will my package arrive?) that our self-reliance and interpersonal muscles aren’t getting as much exercise. In fact, the ATD report argues that the reliance of recent generations on technology has created a situation where workers “tend not to possess important soft skills, such as communication and teamwork, which are not stressed in classroom learning.”

Oracle’s Emily He, senior vice president of Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud Business Group, sees this situation not just as a challenge for organizations, but as an opportunity as well. In a recent blog, she points out that as workplace technology becomes smart enough to handle daily tasks, companies can use the resultant cost savings to invest in the development of a workforce capable of taking on more valuable, high-impact work that requires critical thinking and other soft skills. But how do we get there from here?

Boost Your Employees’ EQ

While many important soft skills that organizations are seeking are intellectual, such as critical thinking, innovation, and problem-solving, the skills gap is not just about IQ, but EQ—emotional intelligence—as well. EQ reflects your ability to get along with other people, and consists of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills, such as communication, collaboration, and teamwork.

At last year’s Cal Poly Women in Business Symposium, Stitch Fix Vice President and Controller Jessica Ross told Oracle Vice President of Global Finance Loren Mahon that future CFOs need to grow their EQ. Stitch Fix, she explained, seeks people who are bright, kind, and goal-oriented. “If you don’t have that EQ piece, navigating business can be really challenging,” she said, adding that today’s college grads should embrace automation rather than fear it. “It’s the very manual, transactional types of activities that aren’t using the human element to its best ability that will and should go away,” she noted.

Creating the Self-Managed Workforce

The goal of developing your workforce’s soft skills is to encourage your employees to manage themselves effectively and with accountability. This offers multiple benefits for the organization and its people. More employee autonomy means fewer layers of hierarchy and management, which is expensive; nor do managers want to spend their time micromanaging employees. For their part, employees want greater control over their work and career. The skills that organizations should look for in recruits and develop among employees include:

  • Self-awareness: knowing your abilities and limitations and working to improve them
  • Career development: taking responsibility for your own advancement, including creating learning opportunities
  • Problem-solving: taking the proper initiative to solve problems on your own rather than passing them on to a supervisor
  • Critical thinking: being able to form a judgement through objective analysis
  • Innovation: coming up with new ways to accomplish the organization’s objectives
  • Conflict management: understanding how to work through interpersonal conflict so it doesn’t impede work
  • Self-learning: improving your skills to accomplish more
  • Change management: adapting readily to new ideas and situations

Organizations must help employees develop these skills through training and coaching in addition to prioritizing them in recruitment and employee assessment. We’re already seeing ways in which artificial intelligence (AI) can assist HR organizations in this process, by, for example, determining what characteristics to look for among recruits that correlate with self-management skills. At the same time, managers will need to learn how to supervise a self-managing workforce and may require training themselves to understand how to coach and lead this more autonomous group of employees.

The future of work will include an emphasis on soft skills that can't be automated. Here’s why soft skills matter so much.

Soft Skills, Hard Work

HR will play a critical role in leading the enterprise across this new frontier, where automation increasingly handles repeatable tasks freeing humans to do what humans do best: collaborating, innovating, and thinking strategically. HR can help the organization put programs in place to support the cultivation of soft skills. This includes making sure that the company is evaluating a candidate’s soft skills during recruitment and providing training in these skills during onboarding and beyond. Continuously developing your workforce’s soft skills throughout the employee lifecycle may be hard work, but it will pay off in the form of a more agile and innovative organization prepared to face the challenges of the future.

Download this Oracle eBook to learn more about the chemistry of high performance and working with purpose. Additionally, download our AI at Work Report.

Sharlyn Lauby is president of ITM Group Inc., a Florida-based training and human resources consulting firm focused on working with companies to retain and engage talent. She’s also the author of the blog HR Bartender.

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