Using Talent Management Technology to Enhance Soft Skills


How do you teach curiosity? Problem-solving? Creativity and adaptability? With talent development technology, HR and learning leaders can help their people continuously improve and develop behavioral skills that are now more critical than ever, writes Mary Stanton, vice president of people and learning, Saba Software.

We’ve all worked with colleagues who are professionally brilliant but whose interpersonal skills leave much to be desired. Or we’ve had a boss so focused on bottom-line results that they can’t relate to the team on a personal level. And while many of us probably just chalked these experiences up to differences in personality traits, the truth is that behavioral skills aren’t innate – and they certainly aren’t fixed.

People may be born with potential, but nobody is born with “people skills.” Skills like flexibility, communication, adaptability, and teamwork – just like technical and digital skills – must be learned and developed. And in the workplace of the future, the lack of well-developed behavioral skills will be more than a minor frustration or inconvenience – their absence will be the primary barrier to organizational agility and success.

Soft skills – or “power skills” as global industry analyst Josh Bersin calls them – have finally surpassed technical skills in terms of their importance. A 2018 IBM studyOpens a new window found that the top four skills executives around the world consider being most critical are all behavioral: the willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change; time management skills and the ability to prioritize; the ability to work effectively in team environments; and the ability to communicate effectively in the business context.

Unfortunately, soft skills have been mainly overlooked from an employee development
perspective in favor of technical and digital skills, especially over the last several years with the rise of big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. And it’s easy to understand why: Technical skills like software programming and data analytics were critical drivers of successful digital transformation. But with the technical skills gap narrowing, it’s time for HR and learning leaders to recalibrate their learning and development (L&D) strategies and focus on what will be the most significant source of competitive advantage in the future: behavioral skills.

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The Role of Technology in Soft Skills Development

The soft skills gap crisis isn’t a product of our always-on, technology-driven world eroding employees’ communication and interpersonal skills. Instead, the digital economy has fundamentally changed the way we work and, as a result, changed the behavioral skills required to succeed. From the rise of remote work and 24/7 mobile access to an exploding gig economy and increasingly flat organizational structures, the workplace of today is very different than what it was even just a decade ago. It’s why organizations now need to upskill and reskill their people to help them acquire the behavioral skills required to stay competitive in this new reality.

But here’s the catch: Soft skills are a lot harder to develop than technical skills. After all, how do you teach curiosity? Problem-solving? Creativity and adaptability? If there were a straightforward answer, surely everyone would have mastered these skills by now. But with talent development technology, HR and learning leaders can help their people continuously improve and develop these critical behavioral skills, which are far more dangerous than ever.

Here are three ways talent management technology can help you develop soft skills in your people and create agile, adaptable teams that can keep pace with changing market dynamics:

1. Identify mentors who can help employees strengthen their soft skills

Soft skills can’t be fully developed in an hour-long course. They can take an entire career to perfection. So, help your employees learn from others who have already mastered those skills! A robust talent development platform can intelligently recommend mentors to an employee based on their career goals. If a skill like decision-making or teamwork is identified as a requirement for career progression, for example, the employee can be automatically paired with colleagues that have demonstrated expertise in that area. The employee can then connect with these experts to receive mentorship and coaching, or even to learn informally.

2. Facilitate a culture of continuous coaching and ongoing feedback

Relying solely on the annual performance review to provide employees with feedback on behavioral skills is ineffective. Not only is it challenging for managers to recall specific details and events from the course of an entire year, but it’s also not very helpful or actionable for employees. Can you imagine your surprise and indignation if your boss seemingly out of the blue were to bring up a meeting or presentation from a year ago where you could have communicated better?

When it comes to soft skills, employees need real-time, ongoing, in-the-moment feedback. And with the help of talent management technology, organizations can facilitate proactive feedback and coaching culture. With 1:1 meeting and check-in tools, for example, managers and employees have a centralized, anytime, anyplace way to exchange feedback, provide coaching, and discuss career development opportunities on a regular, ongoing basis.

3. Use game-based learning to drive positive behavior change

For any learning initiative to be effective, employees have first to be motivated to learn. But what motivates us is hardwired into our brains. By drawing on neuroscience principles in learning experience design– such as by using emotionally engaging learning content, motivating learners using loss aversion, and making use of social stories – you can more effectively drive positive behavior change.

Loss aversion, for example, taps into our innate desire to avoid losing. Since we feel a “loss” about twice as strongly as we feel a “win,” effective gamification techniques can be a powerful motivator when it comes to learning and skill development. By taking a game-based approach to learning, a talent development platform with gamification features such as leaderboards, badges, and point systems can be an excellent tool to help motivate people to change their behavior.

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Building Critical Skills for the Future of Work

Businesses cannot survive without people who possess the soft skills needed to do the jobs of today. And as if that imperative wasn’t enough, people also need skills to adapt, on a moment’s notice, to the changing needs of business caused by competition, digital disruptions, and evolving customer demands. In this new talent reality, every industry and every organization will find that soft skills are increasingly essential for success.

HR and learning leaders are faced with tough choices on whether to continually hire people with the necessary skills, invest in training, or find a new way forward. By taking advantage of modern talent development technology, HR and learning leaders can help their people continuously improve and develop critical behavioral skills to close the soft skills gap, maintain competitiveness, and ensure long-term organizational agility.

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