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Josh Bersin: Surprise! The skills of the future aren’t technical

It's time to prioritize gaps in behavioral and leadership skills.
By: | October 22, 2019 • 4 min read

The IBM Institute for Business Value recently surveyed approximately 5,670 executives across 48 countries to learn more about the skills needed to execute business strategies. The top finding of the research is that approximately 120 million workers may need to be retrained or reskilled as a result of AI and intelligent automation.

Yet, the research also revealed that, while technical and digital skills were still in high demand, executives are placing highest priority on behavioral—or soft—skills. Of 12 technical and behavioral skills identified through the research, executives placed highest priority on:

  • A willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change
  • Time-management skills and ability to prioritize
  • Ability to work effectively in a team environment
  • Ability to communicate effectively in a business context

A bit further down the list was: the capacity for innovation and creativity; and ethics and integrity.

See also: Are soft skills more important than the right qualifications?

Certainly, digital and technical skills remain in high demand, but companies can hire or retrain relatively quickly to close these gaps. However, a 2018 study by Bloomberg Next showed that four out of 10 companies believe that recently graduated employees lack the soft skills needed to be successful in the workplace, including emotional intelligence, complex reasoning, and negotiation and persuasion.

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The data are quite clear: Digital-skills gaps are being addressed; the leadership and behavioral skills gaps are not. And these are the skills that are critical to dealing with the challenges most businesses are facing every day—adapting to constant change; prioritizing our time to work on the most important things, even as priorities shift; learning to listen and collaborate in a team; and understanding how to communicate ideas, findings and recommendations in a compelling way contextualized to the business.

These “soft skills” (that term has to be retired, by the way) are complex and behavioral in nature, and they represent uniquely human skills that cannot be done by machines.

Economic History Points This Out

Consider the relative wage growth of these four job families:

  • Low social, low math (highly routine)
  • Low social, high math (technical but not team-oriented)
  • High social, low math (complex and managerial, but not technical)
  • High social, high math (complex and managerial and technical)

Economic history shows that, over the last 30 years, highly routine jobs have plummeted in value (toll takers, assembly workers). Technical jobs (engineers, programmers) have fallen slightly behind, partly because the technology keeps changing and many technical jobs are being automated. Jobs with high social skills (sales, leadership, project managers, marketing) have increased in value, and those that require both technical and managerial have increased the most.

I lived this in my own personal life. I graduated from school with bachelor and master of science degrees in engineering, and within a few years, I realized that engineering alone would not excite me. I also saw that engineering careers started out fast, but also plateaued early. So, I ended up going into sales, marketing, and later, management.

Most of you know quite well that the biggest challenges you have at work are not technical. Rather, they involve managing your time well, finding out how to work in a team, and learning how to influence, support and coach other people.

Even the jobs of data scientists are becoming more hybrid, as shown in a 2019 analysis by Burning Glass. Highly paid data scientists are now expected to understand how to interpret data, consult with their internal clients and communicate their ideas in a compelling and business-relevant way.

In the case of HR, I like to think about this as the “full-stack” HR manager. (“Full stack” is traditionally used to describe an engineer who knows everything from hardware to operating systems to databases to user interfaces.) Today’s HR leaders have to know a lot about all domains of HR, plus we need to understand technology, economics, behavioral science and business as well.

Time to Build Corporate Capability Academies

To address soft-skills gaps, you need to offer a wide range of development opportunities, including formal development, self-directed learning, developmental assignments, apprenticeship programs and moving talent across functions and business units.

I am also seeing a need to create what I call corporate capability academies, designed to upskill and reskill people for complex roles. Based on the T-shaped skills model, such academies are not only places to develop deep expertise in certain skills, they are also ways to develop broad skills. In every domain, there are both deep and broad skills needed, and our role in transforming teams is to help people develop both.

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For instance, digital skills (understanding SEO, HTML, data analytics, visualization, AI, cloud systems) are now broad skills for most modern professional roles. We all need to understand them to a degree. It’s only software engineers or cloud designers who need deep skills in programming, user interfaces, AI, and algorithms. So, you might decide to build a digital skills academy that encompasses the basic skills needed across many domains, and then a vertical set of programs focused on the deep digital skills needed for specialized roles such as digital marketing or digital HR.

Developing the complex, behavioral-related skills people need for the complex, hybrid job roles of the future will be one of your biggest opportunities in HR and L&D. Now is the time to think about it.

Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He recently spoke at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. He can be emailed at [email protected]

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