October 10, 2019 ~ 5 min read

A little more about soft and hard skills

Weekly TipsSpeakingWritingListening

Let's talk a little more about the origin of the 'hard skills / soft skills' classification system.

Thanks to reader Lee F. for pointing out a great twitter thread by Erika Hall:

This prompted me to do a little bit more digging on the subject and find a blog post with quotes and links to the original military documents.

It turns out the three criteria that were used to divide "hard" from "soft" were:

  • Degree of interaction with a machine
  • Degree of specificity of behaviour to be performed
  • Typical kind of on the job situation

Essentially, was the skill involving a machine and relatively routine? Call it a "hard" skill. Otherwise throw it in the "soft" bin.

Nowhere in this classification system that I could see was a value judgment of 'hard' over 'soft' -- that came later.

'Soft' as 'Unteachable'

Another look at this "soft/hard" classification system is in the great Seth Godin's piece Let's stop calling them soft skills

Seth goes deeper into how "soft/hard" has permeated the business world, reframing "hard" to "vocational skills" (probably a better word than my original suggestion of 'technical skills').

He talks about how HR processes optimize for these vocational skills, while overlooking the massive differences in outcome from individuals with similar vocational skill.

And he highlights how we use this classification system to lie to ourselves about the teachability of non-vocational skills:

We underinvest in this training, fearful that these things are innate and can’t be taught.

We call these skills soft, making it easy for us to move on to something seemingly more urgent.

We rarely hire for these attributes because we’ve persuaded ourselves that vocational skills are impersonal and easier to measure.

And we fire slowly (and retrain rarely) when these skills are missing, because we’re worried about stepping on toes, being called out for getting personal, or possibly, wasting time on a lost cause.

Which is crazy, because infants aren’t good at any of the soft skills. Of course we learn them. We learn them accidentally, by osmosis, by the collisions we have with teachers, parents, bosses and the world. But just because they’re difficult to measure doesn’t mean we can’t improve them, can’t practice them, can’t change.

Of course we can.

A call to arms

The underinvestment in human skills as compared to vocational skills is pervasive in our society today.

I see it already in my son's elementary school, where kids have STEM labs from the time they enter Kindergarten, and school presentations shout 'STEM STEM STEM' while only barely mentioning arts and humanities subjects.

I see it in software companies who hire dozens of software engineers for every one or two designers, and spend millions of dollars building products while barely speaking to their users.

And I see it in the ease some of my students have in getting companies to pay for technical courses, and their challenges getting them to pay for coaching or other interpersonal improvement.

But this is not inevitable.

The growing recognition of the value of human skills.

For all of these negative signs about the current situation, I think there is a growing recognition of the value of human skills. A growing recognition that we've gone too far in our focus on pure technical expertise.

I draw this from examples I see around me.

From the fact that tech conferences are having keynote speakers like April Wensel, founder of Compassionate Coding, on the importance of compassion in software development.

From the engineering manager I spoke to who told me: "I have a senior engineer I'd love to promote, but he's not a good enough listener."

From the response I got from you in email, facebook, and twitter about my first post on Human Skills

This is a growing movement of people who realize that vocational skills are not enough. Our ability to progress, both as individuals and a society, depends on upping our skill level in key human skills - compassion, leadership, communication, and much more.

In the Seth Godin piece I quoted above, he highlights that unlike with vocational skills, we don't have a taxonomy of the important human skills. He lists a set of suggestions to start the discussion, but I'd love to hear from you.

What are the most important human skills that you're working on? What do you wish you were better at, but don't know where to start? Shoot me a note and let me know.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.