Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills: What’s Better to Enable Tomorrow’s Team Success?

Is your organization’s hiring criteria and training curriculum oriented toward hard skills and qualifications like project management, programming, technical certifications, degrees, languages and operating proficiency? These teachable skills are tangible and relatively easy to identify. However, in terms of team success and project outcomes, often it is the “softer” skills – collaboration, flexibility, communication, leadership, motivation, rapport, and trust building – that have become progressively more important.

We have witnessed rapid change brought by new ways of working in the past decade, and the future of work will bring even greater need for team members to bring strong softer skills to the table. To explain this dynamic, here are five reasons why.

Reason #1: Consumerization of technology makes technical “things” more intuitive and easier to master

With the consumerization of both information and communications technology, using technology productively to achieve your respective ends has become much simpler and easier. This recent revolution in usability means that a team member with reasonable aptitude can quickly deliver results with powerful tools that previously required months if not years of training to master. For example, editing videos or creating infographics used to require the installation and learning of complicated tools. Now, easy and automated tools from the cloud do the job with minimal fuss and produce great results.

Reason #2: The skills and knowledge to perform a “hard skill” task may end up being performed by a machine instead

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation are increasingly replacing the technical components of work, especially the more structured, repetitive or programmable elements. In this context, however, uniquely human attributes such as creativity, leadership, and ability to collaborate are not easily replaceable with automation or AI. These softer characteristics and personal traits will continue to be in demand and deliver sustained value. Meanwhile, individuals may also need the aptitude and skills to collaborate with an AI-driven machine – another potentially essential soft skill.

Reason #3: Relevant technical skills are often transient and may quickly become obsolete

The rate of change in the workplace is increasing, and yesterday’s technical skills have quickly become devalued. That’s why soft skills like flexibility and adaptability to learn what is new and upcoming is mandatory in order to stay relevant. Meanwhile, a range of soft skills like persistence and motivation can drive a team forward – persevering and learning new technical skills on the fly as needed to meet specific project demands.

Reason #4Team structures have gone from structured and stable to ad-hoc and on-demand

As team construction becomes more fluid and project-driven, it’s the soft skills of being able to fit-in quickly, establish rapport and trust with peers, and understand how to add value to achieve team goals that become critical. Without these “softer” personal characteristics in hand, even those teams stacked with excellent technical skills may not be very productive or adaptable to new challenges in a dynamic work environment.

Reason #5: Virtual, distributed teams are becoming mainstream across many industry sectors

Virtual teams tend to have remote or distributed members, potentially assembled to achieve a project outcome or to tap the knowledge and expertise of employees whose location spans multiple time zones or continents. Some may work from home or a different location than their manager. This environment implies that employees must be self-managing and productive in the absence of the traditionally co-located, hierarchical, supervised team model. These distributed teams tend to be much flatter, more self-directed and more results focused. With this team concept, you can see that regardless of the technical skills in hand, soft skills would be a higher priority prerequisite to ensure team members work effectively together to achieve outcomes.

Unless you are working in solitude writing code, designing circuits or doing heads-down engineering – it is likely your organization is going to perform better if equipped with people who bring strong soft skills to the game. Those who are most adaptable and versatile, effective at communicating and collaborating, and demonstrate superior emotional and social intelligence will go a long way in leading their teams to success – much more so than hard technical skills alone.

What is the implication for your organization’s hiring and training? The first question to ask would be how much time, energy, and resources are allocated to developing soft skills as opposed to technical skills. Depending on how soft skills are fermented and utilized, you may well have an opportunity to re-prioritize, and, as a result, see your teams generate better outcomes for your organization.

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About Ross Sedgewick

Digital Workplace and Team Collaboration Expert
Ross joined Unify in 2002 and has fulfilled several expert marketing roles in technologies for the digital workplace, team collaboration / customer contact solutions, and virtual team engagement. He currently handles content creation, messaging and insight development relating to the digital workplace. Ross is passionate about humanizing the intersection of people and technology, and understanding how users engage and interact. Prior to joining Unify, Ross has held marketing, product, channel and sales leadership positions at IBM Corporation, Delano Technologies, and Siemens Enterprise Communications.