Magazine article Management Today

When a Soft Approach Makes Sense on Soft Skills

Magazine article Management Today

When a Soft Approach Makes Sense on Soft Skills

Article excerpt

Soft skills such as communication, teamwork and time management have become increasingly essential in the workplace. MT in association with McDonald's put together a panel of experts to discuss the best way these core qualities can be developed and measured

Ian Wylie, special projects editor, MT: Why has the topic of soft skills become such a hot one for business?

Dan Hooper, policy adviser, Federation of Small Businesses: We've found that this issue is at the top of the agenda in terms of small businesses wanting to grow.

Richard Forte, senior vice president, chief operations officer, McDonald's UK: Businesses like ours are passionate about soft skills because they have a direct effect on our customer experience and the three million customers we serve every day.

Deborah Baker, director for people, Sky: These sort of skills have always been significant, but they have assumed even more importance now as organisations have changed their shape and become less hierarchical and more collaborative.

Jonathan Simons, head of education, Policy Exchange: And as a result, this topic is now a government priority, whether it's through character education, apprenticeships or careers advice.

Mike Westcott, global human resources director, National Grid: We're passionate about hard skills and do a lot of work promoting STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). But soft skills have become increasingly important because of how we're arranging work in our company and trying to push accountability and decision-making down the organisation.

Wylie: But are we able to agree on what we mean when talking about soft skills?

Irena Grugulis, professor of work and skills, Leeds University Business School: They are a huge range of things - skills competencies, personal qualifications and character traits. At one level, it's easy to find groups of soft skills we all agree on. But research has shown for many decades that when you start putting together a wish list, there can be no limit. And while we all use a common vocabulary, meaning varies hugely in different employers.

Westcott: The context in which your company operates will determine the colour you give to those definitions. National Grid's culture will be very different to the culture in Sky or McDonald's, and what we do, what we value and how we get business done will be different.

For example, how do our teams, who unfortunately dig up the holes around your offices, get better at their customer service work? They need to explain what's going on, and provide a little bit of background in a way that's not just 'here you are, see you later, mate'. And that's a skill So while it might be possible to agree definitions, we add our own context and colour to explain that to be successful at National Grid, these are the things that are really important.

Forte: Our research found organisations call them different things, whether it's life skills, people skills or soft skills. At McDonald's we call them the vital skills because they're vital for us and for our employees in our environment. However you define or describe them, they're a set of essential skills that are required to be successful in your role in the workplace but also in wider society and life.

Hooper: I think they are a by-product of the education system and of gaining qualifications. These skills are developed as a result of that process.

Wylie: What do you think is the biggest soft-skills gap that businesses face?

Baker: There's a great deal of talk about how young kids entering the workplace are 'not employable' and that we need to teach them employability skills. But sometimes we just need to build their confidence. They've got a lot to offer but they don't know how to describe it. With our Sky Academy initiative, we get young people talking about their skills to help them build that confidence. …

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