THE INCREASINGLY INTERPERSONAL nature of the workplace has been widely written about. Peter Drucker (1994), for example, in his highly regarded article, "The Age of Social Transformation," eloquently describes how the decline of manufacturing has created a "knowledge worker" class, which he estimated to be a third of the American labor force at the end of the 20th century. The effective knowledge worker works in teams, multitasks, and is a critical and creative thinker. Such a worker must adapt well to social and operational contexts. For managers in such environments, supervision is a social rather than a technical function because subordinates can and must work independently and often remotely, needing little supervision but much coaching, cheerleading, and coaxing.
Henry Mintzberg (1994) goes further. He proposes a revision of the traditional (and highly theoretical) role of managers from performing discrete functions of planning, organizing, communicating, and controlling to a three-level concentric model. The first level is managing by information (acquiring and processing information). In Level 2, managing through people, information is disseminated. In Level 3, managing action, individuals take action desired by the organization. Mintzberg notes that managers must develop effective communication skills that include the ability to scan the environment informally while interacting nonverbally and orally to gather information and to focus on affective aspects of the organization. The process is by no means a linear one, as the traditional model suggests, because managers must be prepared to think creatively and critically to accomplish their goals. Indeed, our understanding of how organizations work has been shaped by the study of communication (social and task) networks overlaid on the "formal" organization. These communication networks are indispensable for diffusion of innovations and for creating inclusive environments, but they can also serve as "leveling coalitions" that resist changes to the status quo.
One term that comes to mind that describes this interpersonal dimension of life at work is soft skills. Soft skills are attitudes and behaviors displayed in interactions among individuals that affect the outcomes of such encounters. These differ from hard skills, which are the technical knowledge and abilities required to perform specific job-related tasks more formally stated in job descriptions. In the past, it was felt that managers and employees did not need soft skills as long as they could do their work, but now even positions in hard, task-oriented areas such as accounting (Cole, 1999) and information systems (Solomon, 2002) require soft skills as well as technical skills.
How do organizations respond to the interpersonal evolution in the workplace? How do they measure the need for soft skills? And how do they design programs that address such needs? To find answers, I turned to Annalee Luhman, Learning and Leadership Manager at the Port of Seattle in Washington. The Port of Seattle, a municipally chartered public company, is divided into three major operating divisions: an Aviation Division that operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a Seaport Division that operates the marine terminals and related maintenance, and an Economic Development Division. The port employs approximately 1,500 employees and budgeted US$318 million for operating revenues in 2003.
Dr. Luhman holds a Ph.D. in speech communication (complex organizations, cross-cultural communication, organizational decision making) with a minor in labor relations and other business courses. Prior to her current position, she was an independent organization development and leadership consultant to a range of industry sectors for 8 years. Her position is located in the Human Resources and Development Department.
As the leadership and learning manager at Port of Seattle, what exactly do you do?
I help ensure that the Port of Seattle's workforce is a high-performing one that has (1) the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities for the organization to accomplish its current mission and that is (2) appropriately prepared for achieving the port's vision for the future. This position includes working collaboratively with my Human Resource and Development partners in staffing and employment, organization development, diversity, performance management, and total compensation to recruit, develop the capabilities of, and retain desired staff.
My role also helps create conditions that engage employees in productive, meaningful work. These conditions are a result of designing systems, providing needed resources, and implementing policies that support employees--and that develop their skills and knowledge in ways that match the Port's evolving challenges and priorities.
I am specifically responsible for designing, implementing, and evaluating a strategic learning plan that addresses both current and future capability needs. The plan meets these objectives via an integrated core curriculum. We provide classes in such learning tracks as management development, employee development, career planning, and life planning. These classes help managers and employees perform their current jobs better and also prepare them for future assignments and new levels of responsibility.
I also project manage the design of leadership and career development programs for frontline, emergent, and mid-to-senior leaders. This work involves program oversight and individual assessments, consultation, and coaching of individuals to enhance their professional development.
Finally, I provide guidance to the training functions throughout the organization to foster an enterprise-wide view of capability development. We utilize a software learning management system that helps capture development efforts and assists in strategic workforce planning.
What organizational trends justify your role at Port of Seattle?
Technology, lifestyle changes, and shifting demographics have an unceasing and powerful influence on the world, communities, and employees--and are changing the very nature of work on a continual basis. As a result of these forces, security, health care, environmental regulations, and worries about workplace violence are just a few of the issues that companies face in this new millennium. Organizations are also facing the loss of employees due to an aging workforce. They need to find new ways to harness the talents of our increasingly diverse employees who remain and who differ by age, gender, race, ethnicity, formal education, and whether or not they are unionized. The changing face of organizations thus requires significant ongoing investments in education and training. Such investments may include courses such as Preventing Harassment or Systems Thinking or corporate initiatives focused on health and wellness and change. Evolving technologies also require new ways of doing work and different capabilities from employees and managers alike. Finally, leaders and managers need frameworks for renewing themselves and their staffs, and they must have needed competencies in setting direction and purpose, in innovating and leading change, in leveraging diversity, and in building capability and ownership in their future leaders.
But sometimes leaders and managers can be resistant to change, thinking that some of the trends you mention are disruptive and have very little to do with getting the job done ...
My experience as a Board member of Seattle's City Club (a nonpartisan service organization that provides speakers on topics of significance to the region and to the community), my neighborhood work, and my professional expertise have all reinforced that participation in discussions (and then acting) is our best hope for renewing hope and self-reliance among those who want to make needed changes in their world. Employees may complain about "organizational politics," stating their wish to be let alone so they can "just get the work done." However, in workshops on "how to get things done when you're not in charge," we teach that talk is the work of bureaucratic organizations and that often politics is the work that results in the changes they seek.
Do you think soft skills development is a fad or a necessary ingredient in organizational development?
I do not think that "soft skills" development is a fad. Indeed, I believe these skills are at the very heart of creating capability in employees and leaders. We certainly expect individuals in all job families to have (and continue to develop) the technical skills required for their unique jobs--whether they are crafts workers in a maintenance department or payroll specialists in accounting. However, even at the individual employee level it soon becomes apparent that little work gets done in isolation. All employees must be skilled at participating in team projects and affirming others. They must be adept at managing conflict and creating inclusive relationships that improve team performance and launch ideas. Indeed, the soft skills of negotiating solutions or taking a systems view in revamping work processes are the essential tools of effective contributors everywhere.
Moreover, for those in formal leadership roles, being proficient in "soft skills" is even more critical. Thinking systemically and acting strategically are the linchpin of effective leaders, but superb soft skills are necessary to actually implement--to articulate a vision; to enroll others in possibilities; and to communicate values, standards, and expectations. Of course, limited contexts exist where a "command-and-control" approach to leading is appropriate. But four decades of social-scientific research have clearly demonstrated that to turn aspirations into actions requires a culture of inclusion and accountabilily--one grounded in the passion, energy, and commitment of individuals. People support what they help create, and "soft skills" are the essential tools for helping them contribute to their full potential.
Explain how you would design a learning plan to address soft skills development.
Organizations use many avenues to create strategic staffing plans that address current and future capability needs and to design learning plans around them. Human resource and learning professionals who function as strategic business partners in the organization are best prepared to help assure that employees have needed proficiency in soft skills.
Data is typically gathered using both informal and formal methods ranging from interviews with managers, observations of employees at work, use of surveys, and review of job-posting requirements. Sometimes, the need for soft skills development in a given area may be indicated by a pattern of employee complaints--perhaps about unfair treatment, ineffective management practices, or strained coworker relationships.
Most organizations use their job evaluation or job classification systems to delineate the essential functions of a given job or group of jobs. Those evaluations typically list required knowledge, skills and abilities, and the preferred qualifications as well--requirements that evolve from a hiring manager's thoughtful assessment of what is needed in a candidate to be successful in the job.
Importantly, most evaluation systems also assess the number, complexity, and hierarchical level of individuals with whom a focal individual must interact to get the job done--testament to the value of organizational relationships. Designing soft skills development also requires paying close attention to the organization's mission and strategic vision.
Finally, as future corporate initiatives increasingly straddle organizational boundaries, the need for collaboration, for understanding of diverse perspectives, and for integration of knowledge work will only up the ante for soft skills capability in every participant.
How can we prepare business students to become more attuned to the importance of soft skills in the "real world" that they will soon enter?
Business students should be encouraged to grab every chance to work in organizations, particularly in roles that require interdependence with others. They can work in political campaigns, assist in community events, work on publications, volunteer for charities, or contribute time (and expertise) to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Internships remain a traditional and wise way for students to bring their initiative, insight, and energy to companies; the organizations, in turn, can provide a hospitable place to "learn the ropes" via coaching and mentoring from seasoned employees who value both hard and soft skills.
Finally, student readings should include such Harvard Business Review classics as "Moral Mazes," based on a Robert Jackall's (1983) dissertation examining the perils of accurately evaluating soft-skill-dependent managerial work. Of course, having students occasionally log on to Web sites that inform (e.g., DiversityCentral.com) and read widely (e.g., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Fast Company) would also be beneficial, for therein lie tales of much of what they will need to know to be successful while helping others succeed along with them.
IMPLICATIONS FOR BUSINESS EDUCATORS
This article indicates an emerging trend of organizations for knowledge workers evidenced by requirements for soft skill proficiency. Additionally, the need for collaborative student work is reinforced here. Teamwork and interpersonal activities are fundamentally inherent in promoting soft skill development. However, students need practical opportunities to hone these skills. Thus, business educators must do more than provide theoretical models for organizational effectiveness. Courses should be structured, activities developed, and requirements outlined to challenge students to embrace interdependence and think critically, systematically, and strategically in preparation for becoming valuable organizational contributors.
Cole, G. (1999). Soft skill shuffle. Accountancy, 1268, 4344.
Drucker, E (1994). The age of social transformation. The Atlantic Monthly, 274(5), 53-80.
Jackall, R. (1983). Moral mazes: Bureaucracy and managerial work. Harvard Business Review, 61(5), 118-130.
Mintzberg, H. (1994). Rounding out the manager's job. M1T Sloan Management Review, 36(1), 11-25.
Solomon, M. (2002). Miss manners meets MIS. Computerworld, 36(22), 30-31.
Address correspondence to Clive Muir, Department of Management, Stetson University, Stetson FL 32723; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.…