The future of work is here, and it’s bringing with it a renewed focus and emphasis on what have long been called “soft skills.” It’s also coming hand-in-hand with a push for technology and ROI, so you’ll need to make sure your own business is ready in parallel to tackling the evolving needs of your clients.

In our latest infographic, we curated research about the critical skill development needs for 21st century employees, and realized that the changes in skill priorities will also be a factor in shaping changes to the way consultants build and market their programs. Some are already well down this path; others have some work to do.

But first, let’s look at how skill development needs are evolving.

The struggle to sell “soft” skills is real.

It can be painful selling soft skills solutions to clients that you know desperately need them, but are blind to the critical gaps they’re facing.

Given that the outcomes of “hard” or technical skill training can be more easily measured, soft skills training, which can include everything from relationship building and emotional intelligence to communication and conflict management, are more difficult to evaluate success immediately following the training itself.

Soft skills training is often treated as snake oil by leaders, particularly in a time of decreased outside consultant spending and rapidly changing priorities, with organizations often believing they can solve soft skill gaps on their own, or that these gaps aren’t the urgent issue many consultants know them to be—urgent because too often, critical projects can go sideways as a result of poor leadership skills, or a lack of strong communication skills within teams. Organizations continue to prioritize management, compliance and procedures training above other training themes.

The arrival of the future of work is changing skill development needs.

“Change outpaced humans sometime late in the last century. These are exponential times.”
– Ito and Howe, Whiplash

Let’s not split hairs about whether the future of work has arrived or not. Technology is shifting the way we work today. Amazon is testing new grocery stores that don’t require cashiers, companies are using AI for improving productivity and there are backroom robots for sorting boxes. There’s no denying that the “future” is increasingly becoming part of our present work activities, or at the very least, that we’re starting to discuss scenarios where technology and automation will have the biggest impact.

Certainly, for some organizations, this will mean doubling down on their technology skill development spend, but in parallel, organizations are also recognizing that this means needing to improve the types of skills that can’t easily be automated or outsourced to technology. Overall development of social skills will be in higher demand than technical skills.

Future of Work - Soft Skills

At the same time, organizations are struggling to adapt to models that push beyond traditional structures and modes of leadership. Top-down, leader-driven planning and decision-making keeps organizations moving at too slow a pace, and while full holacracy (or whatever trendy model your clients may have heard of) isn’t the likely answer, an increase in the ability to work in ways that are more self-directed and accountable will be critical.

Soft skills are rapidly becoming core skill essentials.

The Future of Work - Soft Skills

We were high-fiving at Actionable when we read Seth Godin’s compelling article on the importance of what we consider to be core skills (well, virtual high fives via Slack but still). We have known this to be true for years, particularly as we see our consultant’s own clients realize significant results from including personal skill building in their learning priorities.

These skills, which range from culture fit and emotional intelligence, to self and team management skills (including focus and prioritization, critical thinking and peer development), have been part of soft skill program development in the past, of course, but as organizations evolve to meet new demands facing their teams and industry, they are becoming a renewed area of focus for contemporary organizations.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an L&D solution provider per se, it’s likely to be an element of your work, given that learning or training elements are typically part of an overall change, culture, or leadership development solution.

Soft skills become core skills when the ROI is defined and measurable.

To-date, learning programs haven’t looked at the right measures. Leaders indicate that business impact and ROI are their biggest priorities for evaluating learning, yet only 8% see these elements reported about their own programs.

There can be confusion about calculating impact and ROI, particularly if learning has been compliance or technology focused in the past. Attendance and post training testing does not connect to examining how new capabilities in critical thinking are changing business outcomes. Clearly defining the outcomes and measures of success for skill building programs becomes a different conversation about learning with the executive team.

Changing needs will require evolving your skills and business model too.

“Your biggest threat is not what you don’t know, but what you believe to be true is no longer so.”
State of the Consulting Industry Impact Report, 9Lenses, 2016

You can’t possibly convince a client or prospective client of the importance of core skill development if your own skills are lacking. Telling a client that digital literacy or success with managing in a VUCA environment will fall on deaf ears if your solutions are outdated or you lack basic tech savvy yourself. And it will be impossible to report on ROI or scale to any degree if your solutions don’t have a technology infrastructure.

Start with a self-assessment (our infographic doubles as a checklist, so you can see how you stack up), identify the areas that are lacking, and build a game plan to improve in the areas that align to your work. If you offer culture building solutions, how’s your own emotional intelligence, and knowledge of how the space is evolving?  

There’s so much more to unpack in the evolving world of skill development, and a wide range of opinions on where to begin. Let’s start by ending the habit of calling them soft skills; clearly these skills are critical to the next evolution of work facing companies today. We’re hoping our work will help make it easier for you to have the soft skills conversation, and move your client further down the path of beginning to look differently at the need for new skill development perspectives and initiatives.

And as you dig into the analysis and research, make sure that the solutions you’re offering reflect the disruption and evolution facing your own work along the way. The future of your business depends on it.