Soft Skills, Competencies and Skills Softer than Soft Skills

April 9, 2011

For the last decade now HR Professionals have been harping on the importance of soft skills within organisations and all for a good cause or so it appears. Probe a little further on the topic and ask them what these so called ‘Soft Skills’ mean, how do they measure them, can they be quantified into monetary terms to determine the ROI and you will draw a blank.

Go to the next level and ask this very learned group the difference between Soft Skills and Competencies (if there is a difference at all) and the silence would speak for itself. The latest buzz in this fraternity today is talk about ‘Skills Softer than Soft Skills’. Wow, now that would be truly amazing, if one only knew exactly what that meant.

In order to get clarity on these popular nuances I embarked upon a study, which involved a series of interviews with Subject Matter Experts (SME) – OD consultants, Behavioural Analysts, Trainers / Facilitators / Coaches and even Academicians. Their views have been capsulated and presented here to help the HR Fraternity talk the same language and mean the same thing.

Difference between Soft Skills and Behavioural Competencies

Soft skills are primarily personality traits that can be groomed, enhanced or even repressed with the help of behavioural interventions (training). These skills develop gradually over time and are hugely influenced by cultural overtones. Knowledge, thus resulting from these varied experiences becomes the defining characteristic of the individual.

When the element of intent or attitude is added to knowledge and skills it becomes a competency. The distinction between the two is subtle but one that cannot be ignored.

A behavioural trait can be a soft skill as well as a competency the distinguishing criteria is attitude or intent.

For e.g. Presentation Skills can be both a competency and a soft skill. The individual might possess the relevant knowledge to make an effective presentation; he might also have the necessary skills due to past experience but if he does not have the right attitude (i.e. he does not like making presentations) then he lacks the competency though he possess the soft skills.

Having a clear understanding of these two intriguing concepts can help HR professionals in not just profiling employees within their organisation but also determining the kind of intervention different employees might need.

The Pentra Model © depicted below clearly spells out how employees can be profiled based on their knowledge, skills and attitude and the interventions they might require.

Can Soft Skills and Competencies be measured?

Traits can be defined but never measured; their effect however, on personal and professional life can most definitely be measured to a large extent. Soft skills and competencies can be quantified and reported in monetary terms (which is of considerable value to organisations) by using a combination of parametric and non-parametric techniques. These techniques could range from psychometric instruments to structured observation to shadowing to behavioural event interviews to 360 degree feedbacks. ROI in qualitative and quantitative terms become a yardstick of organisation development.

However, due to time constraints and large investments required most organisations do not go through the rigor involved before and after a training intervention. Gap Analysis, organisation benchmarks, employee baseline prior to the intervention and post intervention measures are seldom carried out. What organisations often fail to realise is this investment would go a long way in organisation development and becomes a key factor of measuring‘Organisation Maturity.’

Skills Softer than Soft Skills

Having understood the difference between soft skills and competencies it now becomes imperative to determine the true meaning of ‘skills softer than soft skills’. These are qualities imbibed in an individual from early childhood and have very strong societal, religious and cultural influences. These then should be aptly termed as ‘core skills’ as they define the very being of an individual. Examples of these core skills would be values, beliefs, principles, concepts of transpersonal wellbeing and actualization.

Today organisations are attempting to mould values and belief systems of employees through a variety of interventions to match the organisation’s vision and mission. I cannot stop myself from asking if this is ethically and morally correct? And would they ever be successful in achieving this? If the answer is yes, then organisations are no longer building human capital but have got into the business of human cloning, which is the first step in the rapid downward spiral. Serious cause for concern, I would think.

Of course this is a hugely debatable topic and there are a variety of opinions, and yes each has its merits, but just imagine through behavioural intervention if everyone miraculously had the same values, principles, belief systems etc then there would be no difference of opinion, no clashes as we would have successfully managed to annihilate the very uniqueness that defines us.Paradoxical isn’t it?

– Noor Fathima





Difference between Assessment and Development Centers

April 9, 2011

There are a lot of articles on the web illustrating the difference between an Assessment Center and a Development Center and it is shocking to see the amount of incorrect information that is currently circulating on the topic. This article thus helps to correct the misnomers regarding these two concepts widely misused and abused by the industry in general.

An Assessment Center (AC) refers to setting up a complete assessment lab within the organisation. A variety of assessment techniques could be used to determine the existing potential, performance, skill level and attitudes of employees within the organisation. Assessments can also be used to predict future performance of employees and very often if done correctly determine not just organisation but industry trends. Trend Analysis is a sophisticated measure of organisation maturity; tragically very few HR professionals know how to calculate this even though they have sophisticated Assessment Centers within their organisation.

Commonly used Assessment Methodologies include:

  • Standardized Psychometric Instruments
  • Organisation Surveys
  • Structured Observation
  • Simulations
  • Behavioural Event Interviews (BEI)
  • Shadowing
  • 360 degree feedbacks

Which methodology to use or what combination of methodologies to be used to address current issues within the organisation is of critical importance. Furthermore choosing right parametric and no-parametric techniques for analysis is of prime importance. Thus while setting up an assessment center within the organisation the HR team must have a thorough knowledge about the various tools, techniques and analysis.

Today the market is flooded with a variety of assessment tools that can be used in training. However, choosing the right tool to measure the right competencies is a tricky process. Reliability, validity and other psychometric properties must be thoroughly studied before a tool can be adopted.

It is also very important to keep in mind that psychometric tools should NOT be used in isolation. They are always used as a battery of instruments in combination with other Evaluation Methodologies.

Please refer the diagram below to get an idea of the various types of Psychometric tools available in the market.

Assessment Centers are used during:

  • Recruitment and Selection
  • Training and Development
  • Performance Appraisal
  • Succession Planning
  • Program Evaluation
  • Organisation Development
  • Career Scaping
  • Campus Placements

Development Centers (DC) provides an end to end solution for building and sustaining capabilities within the organisation. An ‘assessment center’ is thus a part of the development center. Once inputs are got from the assessment, skill gaps identified, organisation benchmark determined then based on the current challenges and pain points employee engagements initiatives are untaken. Interventions are developed, standardized, piloted and finally implemented. It is important to follow an ‘Instructional Design System’ like the ADDIE (Analyse, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate) technique  while setting up an in-house development center.

Typically a Development Center would comprises of:

  • Assessment Center (AC)
  • Skill Enhancement Interventions (SEI)
  • Refresher courses / programs
  • Coaching (either one-on-one or group or online)
  • E Leaning
  • Post Assessments
  • Return on Investment (ROI) calibration

An accurate measure of the smooth function of a DC can be seen in evaluation stage, which focuses on application of learnings to the work environment, determining the current organisation maturity level and reporting in tangible and intangible forms the ROI to the organisation. Tragically very few organisations have a well oiled DC in place.

Organisations today, find it not just easier and economical but also reliable to outsource the running of DC for their employees to well established OD Consulting firms, which have a strong, background in organisational behaviour and psychology.

It is predicted that organisations globally in the next 7 years will witness a marked transition in their style of working – moving rapidly from ‘Full Employment Model’ to the ‘Project Life Cycle Model.’ It is in this changing world that the role of Development Centers would become even more critical than ever. New competencies, frameworks, metrics of performance and working will undergo dramatic change and it will be fascinating to observe, analyse and witness the birth of a new era in ‘talent development and management.’

– Noor Fathima