Soft Skills or Complex Skills?

I’ve written previously about that aspect of professional development that focuses on the so-called “soft” skills, like being able to effectively lead, communicate, and work in teams (to name three of the most commonly mentioned).  And when you research these things – digging through news articles, for example – you generally find two common themes:

  1. These attributes are highly valued, but in very short supply.
  2. These attributes are very hard to “teach.”

I’ve said before that I don’t know if these skills are truly in short supply.  I have no data.  But my professional sense is that it’s more likely that they are being overlooked (if not by people, then certainly by algorithms), and that, in practice, the “hard” skills win out over the “soft” skills for any number of reasons… none of them, in my view, satisfactory.

As for whether or not they are hard to teach, I think they are.  I have been trying to teach them in my courses for a very long time, so I have some personal insights on this – enough to know we can do better.  And I’ve spent over 40 years in industry, so I know the importance of these skills (and they go beyond the three mentioned above, but that’s another discussion).

We need some fresh ideas on how to make greater progress in this area.  These are not soft skills, they are complex skills.  This is not a methodological problem, it’s a paradigmatic problem.  We need a new model.

And, keep in mind, this is a multi-disciplinary challenge.  We would benefit from collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines.