How important is it to distinguish between hard and soft skills in the design of learning experiences? Many researchers think that it’s critical. The strategies needed to transfer hard skills, such as technical and procedural knowledge, can be quite different than the knowledge needed to develop soft skills, which involve interpersonal and intrapersonal (occurring within the self) communication.
Compounding the issue is the fact that there are many unanswered questions when it comes to the best techniques for designing eLearning for soft skills.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills can be thought of as the “abilities required in the workplace for professional success” (Georges, 1996). They are competencies needed to communicate, cooperate and to work productively. Some examples of soft skills include:
- Customer service
- Relating well to others
- Time management
- Team cooperation
Difficulties with Soft Skills Training
With the advent of collaborative technologies, 21st century workers will need competence in soft skills more than ever. Yet, according to business surveys, many new employees lack the necessary soft skills needed for success (James & James, 2004). Training in soft skills is difficult, because these competencies are often open-ended and complex, varying from one situation to the next. It becomes impossible to train for all the circumstances that may arise.
Also, people often have an aversion to soft skills training. They may be resistant to changing the way they have always done things, such as how they manage employees or respond to a customer complaint. Training or coaching in soft skills is certainly not a precise science. It needs more time, attention and energy than one learning event can provide.
After reviewing quite a few articles on this topic, I’ve selected some strategies that seem most helpful for designing eLearning or blended learning for soft skills.
Strategy 1: Make it Measurable
One of the big issues associated with training in general and soft skills training in particular, is the difficulty in measuring its effectiveness. Although soft skills training can be valuable in ways that are difficult to measure, it is important to demonstrate results with hard metrics. This can help you improve your design and provide solid results to management.
The first strategy, therefore, is to put clear and measurable goals in place by identifying key performance indicators that need improvement. Then ensure that the training focuses on reaching the goals by focusing on the appropriate skills. Some examples of key performance indicators are listed below.
- Reduction in dissatisfied customers who received technical support
- Reduction in staff turnover rates
- Reduction in time spent in meetings
- Reduction in safety incidents
- Increase in satisfaction of new employees in first three months
- Increase in number of times that managers provide positive feedback
- Increase in sales of a specific product line
While anecdotal evidence, observation of performance and surveys of participants have value, measuring key performance indicators have more weight. They enable you to see which soft skills are being applied to the job and whether the training enhances job performance.
Strategy 2: Integrate eLearning Into the Work Environment
Online learning is often designed and developed in isolation in a way that is removed from the company or organization. This never makes sense, but is particularly rough when it comes to soft skills, which often require competencies to improve relating and communicating. Therefore, any soft skills training should be well-integrated with an organization’s needs and with the needs of the team. They should also be aligned with the individual’s career goals.
A blended learning strategy that integrates soft skills training into the workplace environment is best. This means that more than one intervention is needed. When the course is complete, the training should continue. Newly learned skills should be supported and enhanced by management and team members. Part of a soft skills training plan should include opportunities for additional practice, ongoing discussion, feedback and coaching to support the transfer of newly skills in the workplace environment.
Strategy 3: Single Concept Learning
Another strategy was written by Stephen Meyer in his article, The Effect of the New E-Learning on Soft Skills Training. Meyer has found success using what he calls single-concept learning or “thin slicing” (Meyer, 2014). Considering the short attention spans so common today, Meyer suggests that each eLearning intervention should cover only one isolated concept.
This is the opposite of the traditional fire hose approach to training, where learners are flooded with more information than they can absorb at one time. Rather, single concept learning focuses on one behavior change, one narrow concept and one slim goal.
For example, in typical customer service eLearning, a course would focus on multiple skills and take 30 minutes to an hour to complete. In single-concept eLearning, the experience would focus on one skill, such as using positive language, and would be brief. This eLearning “snack” would demonstrate how to use positive language—rather than negative language—in several situations.
Then the learning experience would be incorporated into a blended learning intervention, such as a mix of managerial coaching and instructor-led training. This provides multiple paths for participants to get the message.
Strategy 4: Focus on Master Skills and Lots of Practice
The final strategy I would like to share is described by trainer, James Georges. It involves distilling soft skills to their essence. Georges states that many soft skills have a common denominator. They essentially involve getting someone to buy-in to you, your idea or your approach. He states that this means “achieving a state of rapport, trust, accord and mutual commitment” (Georges, 1996).
His approach involves spending a small amount of training time on presenting the knowledge and most of the time on practice. In online learning, this can be done through simulated scenarios or in a synchronous virtual classroom. As an example, you can demonstrate showing someone respect by listening to and acknowledging his or her viewpoint. Once the learner is aware of how to do this, he or she can practice it in a variety of situations, under hostile, pleasant and neutral conditions. In this approach, learners need coaching and feedback with lots of repetition.
According to Georges, the master skills common to many soft skills, such as leading a team, management and sales include the following:
- Open a conversation in a way that elicits open-mindedness
- Articulate goals
- Diagnose another person’s needs and problems by listening effectively and asking good questions
- Demonstrate respect for other person’s views
- Gain respect for your own views (advocating)
- Raise the conversation up the intellectual and emotional ladder in a way that the other person is able to follow you (resolve conflict, form solutions that meet the other person’s needs, negotiate for change)
- Carry the interaction all the way to buy-in (the other person is committed and agrees to take action) (from The Myth of Soft Skills Training)
This article presented four strategies for making soft skills eLearning more effective:
- Make it measurable using key performance indicators
- Integrate learning into the entire work environment
- Focus on one isolated concept at a time
- Focus on mastering a common set of core skills, which require much practice
I think we can conclude that one learning intervention is not sufficient for the transfer of soft skills to the workplace. A blended strategy with lots of practice and feedback is required. What strategies have you found to be effective? Please add them below in the Comments section.
- Georges, J. Myth of Soft Skills Training. Training; Jan 1996; 33(1), 48.
- Laker, D. and Powell, J. The Differences Between Hard and Soft Skills and Their Relative Impact on Training Transfer. Human Resource Development Quarterly; Spring 2011: 22, 1.
- Meyer, S. The Effect of the New E-Learning on Soft Skills Training. T+D, July 2014.
- Yelon, S. L., & Ford, J. K. (1999). Pursuing a multidimensional view of transfer. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 12(3), 58–78.
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