soft skills are human skills

Creative people are at all levels of an organization, including the janitor, and are not ‘human resources’ but individuals who have the capability of  gaining wisdom. What are often referred to as ‘soft skills’ are becoming more important than traditional hard skills. Why is this? First of all, work in networks requires different skills than in controlled hierarchies. Information and knowledge flow faster and new connections are constantly being made. The status quo is temporary. This is life in perpetual beta. It is in networks where most of us, and our children, will be working for the foreseeable future.


A foundational behaviour for effectively working in networks is cooperation. Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. In a network, people cannot be directed, only influenced. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. It is like being on Twitter with no followers and never getting Retweeted (RT). You are a lone node and of little value to the network. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Collaboration requires a common goal while cooperation is sharing without any specific objectives. Teams, groups, and markets collaborate. Online social networks and communities of practice cooperate. Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being cooperative means being open to others outside your group and casting off business metaphors based on military models (target market, chain of command, line & staff).

We are moving from a market economy to a network economy and the the level of complexity is increasing with this hyper-connectedness. Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). Cooperation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by this complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is cooperation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.

Work Skills

In 2003 the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas identified emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity as emerging business skills.


In 2010 IBM reported that creativity was the most important business skill over the next five years, or rather around the last five years as of today. So this shift is not new.

Via Richard Florida – Fast Company – IBM

Soft skills are becoming more important than hard skills. Smart employers have always focused more on attitude than any specific skill-set because they know they can train for a lack of skills and knowledge. But soft skills require time, mentoring, informal learning, and other environmental supports. Courses and training are not enough.

Skills & Competencies

In a discussion I had with a senior Human Resources executive at a large corporation, he noted that when it comes to managing people and their talents, there are three buckets. Two of these are easy to fill, while the third is the real challenge:

  1. Tools
  2. Skills
  3. Meta-Competencies

I doubt there is a ‘tools gap’ today, given the availability of all types of productivity mechanisms. In addition, there is no ‘skills gap’ in the workplace, but rather a systemic disconnect between financial capital and human talent.

Researchers Dave Swenson and Liesl Eathington identified several factors contributing to hiring challenges, but a widespread lack of skilled workers was not one them … The Iowa researchers’ conclusion? “When employers say there’s a skills gap, what they’re often really saying is they can’t find workers willing to work for the pay they’re willing to pay,” —GE Reports

The real gap is in the meta-competencies and there are two that I have observed as critical in a network society/economy. These are: 1) Learning how to Learn (e.g. PKMastery), and 2) Adapting to Continuous Change (e.g. Perpetual Beta). 

  1. Meta-competencies require ‘meta time’ which is often forgotten in organizations fascinated with short-term measurements. In networked workplaces, work is learning and learning is the work. We cannot divorce learning from the work being done. Tools and skills can be developed relatively quickly. Meta (learning) competencies take a long time. This is why my personal knowledge mastery workshop is over 40 days but it is still just a drop in the bucket in developing mastery.
  2. For life in perpetual beta we can take some advice from the world of improv acting.
  • Failure is an Option
  • Practice Passionate Followership
  • Don’t Act, React
  • Go with your Gut
  • Don’t be a Blockhead
  • Trust Others
  • Make Others Look Good

Meta-competencies are critical skills, whether you work for yourself or someone else.

Workplace Skills

In 2011 the Institute for the Future identified 10 Future of Work Skills for 2020.

  1. Sense-making
  2. Social Intelligence
  3. Novel & Adaptive Thinking
  4. Cross-cultural Competency
  5. Computational Thinking
  6. New Media Literacy
  7. Transdisciplinarity
  8. Design Mindset
  9. Cognitive Load Management
  10. Virtual Collaboration

LinkedIn, via the New York Times, reported these ‘soft skills’ as the most in demand in 2016.

  • Communication
  • Curiosity
  • Adaptability
  • Teamwork
  • Empathy
  • Time Management
  • Open-Mindedness

These meta-skills all require discipline, time, and practice to develop.

Permanent Skills

Soft skills separate humans from machines. They are permanent skills. For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us, and surpassed humans, with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute.

This requires a rethinking of how we categorize work, define jobs, attract and retain talent. It should be based on talent, not labour. It also means a rethinking of our entire education system. These permanent (soft) skills are not developed through standardized curriculum based on temporary (hard) skills. It’s time to take the long-term view on human work and learning. What was categorized as Labour is merely a temporary skill for market and technological conditions. Talent, or permanent skills, is our long-term value as humans to each other.

Note: This is an update of several previous posts.

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