1. Why soft skills matter

Why soft skills matter

Critical thinking, interpersonal skills, empathy, active listening, dealing with conflicts—these are not just words, but the qualities needed to be successful in any organisation

By: | Published: June 22, 2015 12:04 AM

“Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills or abilities—that’s training or instruction—but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed…”    —Thomas Moore

In their two years at a business school, students are likely to study theories of marketing, finance and behavioural concepts. What many may not be able to develop are the so-called ‘soft skills’, so essential to their success as they join the workforce. In a research by the University of Missouri-St Louis (UMSL) to investigate critical skills and skill gaps in B-school students, the central findings had gaps around skills of critical thinking, personal relationships, communication, prioritisation, etc. Another study by Hult International Business School in 2014 on the future of business education and needs of employers highlighted a similar story—employers expect teamwork, critical thinking, dealing with ambiguity/uncertainty, etc, out of the MBAs they hire.

The fact is that when business graduates land their first jobs, many face problems of adjustment and people-related issues as these are generally amiss from the B-school curriculum. They are expected to evaluate and resolve problems and lead teams early in their careers, but they lack critical thinking and interpersonal relationship skills (important for them to start delivering on their expected KRAs) because they weren’t taught as much.

The education system, in most Indian B-schools, appears to be based on theory, and though most students study in groups and work together, the practical understanding of how organisations function and interpersonal dynamics seem to be completely missing in their two years of management education.

Some better B-schools in the country take proactive steps to reinvigorate their curriculum and pedagogy; however, the emphasis still remains on the latest theories or concepts. The scenario is worse for schools in far-flung areas or in the so-called MBA shops. It has been seen that many of them ask students to go through some textbooks and give them projects which are not relevant for businesses at all.

The challenge is not only with B-schools but also with teachers who are not willing to change from being teachers to facilitators and even students who are still hungry for grades rather than wanting to increase their knowledge. They look for options where companies pay them good salaries and lose sight of their own strengths.

With ever-changing business environments, employers expect students to start delivering on their KRAs as soon as possible. Companies don’t have patience with MBAs whose return on investments aren’t quick. The challenge here is not the ability or the will or even the knowledge. It is the total neglect of the development of ‘soft skills’.

Let’s illustrate with an example. In a large corporate in the banking sector, a number of young MBAs were hired as part of the growth plan. After induction training, they were assigned to a number of functions including planning, diversification and organisational transformation. SHRM India was consulting the bank on talent development and, on many occasions, the HR head shared that most of the newly-hired MBAs are not able to come with any solutions for the assigned tasks and are reluctant to apply detailed critical analysis. The challenge for the bank is this MBA pool will soon be taking higher responsibilities, and with their inability to show critical thinking abilities, it will impact their manpower planning. The bank invested immediately on a programme on critical thinking and problem solving added with action learning projects for these MBAs. The bank assigned individual mentors to these hires and created a talent pool. However, the HR head felt that this whole process raised many questions on the way the curriculum is designed and taught at most B-schools.

Most MBAs just try to relate to case-studies taught in the colleges (which may not have been updated in a decade!) and use them as benchmarks to solve all problems. They start looking for best answers and get lost as the focus is on the result and not on the process of problem solving (critical thinking skills get clouded by their past experiences or bookish knowledge).

Another glaring miss that is seen in B-school graduates is the total inability in their understanding on how to manage interpersonal relationships. Though they have worked in teams, the challenge of how to deal with different stakeholders is generally not taught. They need to deal with peers, subordinates, superiors, customers, vendors, etc, but they sorely lack the skill or the insight which leads to poor or inadequate performance.

So, what is needed?

It looks very simple but what is needed is a mindset change in the way education is imparted and perceived in most Indian B-schools. It requires a continuous re-look and up-gradation of curriculum, pedagogy and approach.
While the curriculum has to teach the theories, the emphasis has to shift onto experiential learning and application of learning through action learning projects, evaluation of actual business simulations and creating business situations for students to start applying their own minds rather than following what others feel or have experienced.

Students have to keep abreast of what is happening globally; they need to challenge the status quo and have healthy discussions. Students mature by the time they enter a B-school, so they need to be treated as such.

Some B-schools in India have initiated mentoring processes by business leaders and its value-add is appreciated by the students. In fact, such processes are an investment into their future. Students have to understand the true meaning of words like empathy, active listening, interpersonal skills, dealing with conflicts and have to start experimenting and applying these to their learnings. In the real sense, these are the life skills needed to be successful in any organisation.

The author is advisory & knowledge head, SHRM India, the subsidiary of SHRM, the world’s largest association devoted to human resource management

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