Today’s technical employees need to be not just technically sound, but equipped to convey their ideas to their businesses in the simplest and most effective way – this is where soft skills come in. Jennie Marshall, QA’s Learning Programme Director, was recently interviewed by Training Industry’s Taryn Oesch. She shares her thoughts on the importance of soft skills for technical people. 

How do you define “soft skills”? What are some examples?

"Soft skills" is a term still commonly used today that I feel can misrepresent what this topic is actually all about! So often technical people see this as the "touchy-feely" side of learning but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Granted, it is about providing people with softer skills that they need to be effective in their role. With Excel someone can learn to click something to produce a certain result. Soft skills is pretty similar, but it’s not always that black and white.

But why is it similar? Well, the learner needs to understand the technical side of the skill they are learning and mastering. Think about someone looking to improve their presentation skills. Yes, being able to relate to an audience, bring energy and adapt your language is key, but without good structure, research and planning, the presentation falls flat.

On the flip side, a technical person may produce a technically accurate and detailed presentation, but if they don’t have the skills to tell the story, again the presentation falls flat. So really technical and "soft" skills go hand in hand for today’s workforce, whether technical or not! Today’s technical employees need to be not just technically sound, but equipped to convey their ideas to their businesses in the simplest and most effective way – this is where soft skills come in.

But let’s consider one of the differences. Doing something to create a certain output may be the right thing one day – the next day it could be completely different. Take leadership, for example. A leader may learn that to get the most out of their employees, they need to adopt a certain style or approach. So they learn how to do that and get a great result. Until one day the result isn’t what they expected and they get a different output. That’s because, as opposed to IT skills where there are set procedures and paths, soft skills deals with a far more intelligent data bank – a human! And as we know, humans respond to situations differently for a number of reasons. So as much as the term "soft skills" will likely be around for a while longer (which is frustrating as the term diminishes their importance), I prefer to think of them as personal and people skills or interaction and effectiveness skills, because, quite simply, they are the skills that link to our personal attributes.

Someone once said that technical or hard skills will get a person an interview, but effective soft skills will get them the job offer. I think this pretty much sums it up for me. 

Why is soft skills training important for technical employees?

Years ago (and I can say this with experience having worked in a technical environment), it was okay for technical employees to be good at the technical stuff. It was okay for knowledge- and skills-focused roles too. It didn’t matter if people didn’t know how to build rapport, or give structured feedback, or assert themselves, because they were good at the technical, academic or skills side of their role and that was why they were employed.

But as our work environments change, more is expected of every employee and we need now more than ever to be able to interact and communicate with other people to produce successful outcomes. Suddenly these people had to get better at the ‘people’ side (the non-technical). Technical people need to be able to communicate and relate to people outside of their immediate departments, and knowing the many ways they can do this successfully is key. They need to be able to communicate their performance, share their ideas, contribute to projects, and just bringing the technical side to the party just doesn’t cut it any more.

Are there any challenges in soft skills training for technical employees?

One of the main challenges I’ve come across in my learning career is the unwillingness for technical employees to partake in soft skills training. Traditionally soft skills events were training-room based, with various activities including personal introductions, group discussions, and flip chart feedback activities. These are all things that I’ve found can send the technical employees running for the hills because this interaction relies on their personal skills. They may prefer the traditional classroom approach – "trainer tell, and I’ll listen and absorb. I don’t want to interact with other people, I just want to learn more of the craft of my expertise and go home".

Much technical training is indeed still delivered in this way. I see it every day and it works for most people. So imagine suddenly being dropped in a soft skills course with music, training toys and a hell of a lot less PowerPoint slides – a course where discussion and communication is the driver, and there isn’t a computer in sight. It’s like taking a fish out of water and I’ve seen this many times! So the trainer will slowly build up the confidence of the person, involve them gently, help them to understand the benefits of the learning.

I’ve also done this many times before – and for me it’s about credibility. Credibility seems to be something that is crucial to deliver soft skills training to technical employees. Once you can demonstrate as a trainer that you can make the technical links and make it feel real to them as something they can do in their workplace, not something airy-fairy that they don’t get, then you’re on to a winner. I’ve waved many technical employees off from workshops feeling buoyed and positive about putting their learning into place. But only because a lot of background thinking and encouragement has gone into making their learning environment credible and real to them.

What are the best ways to deliver soft skills training to technical employees?

I think this boils down to the preference of the learner and their organisation. Not every business can afford to send someone to a training room for a day or two. Some organisations can. There will always be an argument that face-to-face is more effective, as you can pick up on many nuances of behaviour that aren’t always visible when you’re attending an online session.

That said, I think the topic plays a part too. Practising a presentation and gaining feedback on your body language does need to be done so others can see it but with the ever-growing sophisticated technology at our fingertips, that could be done via video conference or Skype for Business.

For me it’s not about the best way to deliver the training, it’s about how to create the lightbulb moments that make people go "wow, I never realised that" or "that is something I can start to do today". Sometimes that happens through e-learning, sometimes it’s face to face and sometimes it’s via tools like WebEx.

As part of any discussions that take place before the training, I’d also look to ensure the right topic was delivered in the right way in a way that suits the client's requirements. We shouldn’t fear other non-face-to-face tools for delivering soft skills training – they definitely play a key part in the future of learning!

What tips do you have for encouraging participation and engagement in the training?

Firstly, go with an open mind, regardless of whether the workshop is your choice or your business has asked you to attend without you having a choice. Someone can always learn something from any workshop. At the session an open mind allows the learner to absorb into the moment a lot quicker, thus making the learning more effective for them – after all – if you enjoy what you learn you’ll remember it. Sulking because you didn’t want to go is wasting your time, your businesses time and also every other attendees time. So suck it up and get stuck in!

Secondly, I think it’s important to understand how you learn best. There are many models and theories out there around this – so have a read of one and just get to know yourself a little better. All good training will be designed to suit every style of learner. It’s just a great advantage if you know which parts will really engage you instantly and which parts you’ll need to focus more on to stay attentive. For example, if you learn by getting involved and doing activities, it’s good to understand that you’ll need to force yourself to stay focused if there are periods of self-reflection working alone in the session.

Thirdly, ask as many questions as you can, even if you think it’s a daft question (which it won’t be!). You can guarantee when you ask the question someone will also be thinking the same! The trainer will always be working hard to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all delegates so you should feel you can ask anything – please remember there is no such thing as a daft question – it’s just an unanswered question.

What tips do you have for measuring ROI of soft skills training?

Return on Investment is something some of my clients ask for, but what we find more of an appropriate measure is ‘ROE’ Return on Expectation. It is possible to measure ROI on things like productivity improvements, fewer escalations of complaints and disciplinaries but the challenge is (as it has always been), how to you attribute the training to these measures. Expectation is somewhat easier to measure. If the training has been successful, key stakeholders and customers within the business will be able to notice the difference as the learners will be demonstrating what has been learnt. Let me give you an example. If someone in the team needs support with managing their workload to identify priorities, a time management course may be identified as the best solution. If you think about ROI, how would we measure this? You could do a time and motion assessment of the individual or attribute a cost to the work they complete across a costed timetable. However, if you measure ROE, the manager and stakeholders will be able to quickly identify if the training was worthwhile due to how the learner is now managing their workload and correctly identifying the priorities. Now that’s hard to put a financial measure on! So my biggest tip would be, identify what you expect to happen as a result of the learning and then measure that. It’s ok to have measures that are qualitative and not quantitive.

Are there any other insights you can share on the topic?

Please remember that like any skill, a workshop isn’t the ‘one-stop shop’ for getting ‘fixed’. Learning anything new and implementing it takes time. If you want to do well and make changes, you will – just keep practising. Especially if you want to grow your technical career. The great thing about learning as an adult in this century is that there is a whole heap of learning available on the internet! There are many great sites sharing insights, tips and tools, so if you want to develop, to a certain degree, be your own trainer. Be curious. Soft skills can be learned and they are critically important in today’s workplace. The majority of soft skills can be enhanced just by being aware of oneself and living consciously in the moment, so take a step back to recognise this (it’s called Emotional Intelligence).

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