During the last decade there have been significant changes to working practices throughout the UK. In order to keep pace with increasing competition, many companies are requiring higher levels of productivity and higher quality from their employees than ever before. This, together with the move away from traditional hierarchical structures to team-based working, has brought about a greater need for new skills and strategies amongst employees at all levels, particularly in the areas of teamwork, leadership and communication. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that suggests that companies that consistently value and invest in the personal effectiveness of their staff are more likely to meet the increasing challenges of national and/or global competition.
“The development of an organisation's people lies at the heart of its overall development and growth” - Investors in People
Hundreds of millions of pounds each year is spent by business in the UK on soft skills training, but how big is the return on the investment (ROI)?
Whenever budgets become the driving factor in decision-making and training strategy, courses without an obvious ROI are often the first to get the chop. This is understandable - if the results are seen as short-lived, and perhaps intangible, then it’s simply not worth the investment. Course participants may find the training useful, practical and enlightening on the day, but a month down the line? Are they really using the skills and continuing to implement their learning back in the workplace? Despite good intentions, have they returned to their familiar, but unproductive habits?
Having worked with a wide range of different organisations in various sectors over the years, we are well aware of the need for sustainable improvements in the soft-skills. We have also discovered that long-term improvements can be made, but only where there is a change in attitudes and often company culture, which can only be achieved through a longer-term, proactive strategy.
Here we reflect on the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills training, and discuss some of the ways we believe will help to achieve more permanent results from soft skills training that deliver the essential ‘return on investment’.
Hard skills vs. soft skills
The term ‘hard skills’ relates to the skills and knowledge required to carry out the technical and administrative aspects of an organisation's business. These include IT skills, knowledge of financial procedures, ability to operate equipment and competence in administration. These skills are relatively easy to observe and measure as there are clearly defined ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing things. For this reason, they're also easy to train.
The ‘soft skills’ are entirely different. The skills of communication, listening, giving feedback, solving problems, delegating, negotiating, motivating others and resolving conflict (to name but a few) are typically much more difficult to observe and measure. They are also more difficult to train, because unlike the hard skills courses, people usually come along with deep-rooted behaviour patterns that are learned throughout their lives, and not just at work. Individuals learn how to deal with countless inter-personal situations and challenges by observing how other people do things, and by experimenting for themselves. They then stick with what appears to work and usually with what gives immediate benefits or relief. The ultimate result is that everyone ends up with a unique approach to interacting with others. Some of these learnt behaviours may be effective, but others can be counter-productive.
Introducing any new interpersonal skill is far more difficult than learning a new technical skill, because it almost always involves replacing old habits. As behaviour patterns are physically established at the brain cell level, any new pattern, even one that makes sense, and one that is desired and expected, will still feel extremely uncomfortable and difficult to achieve. The only way to replace old behaviour patterns is to introduce new behaviours that consistently prove to be more successful. Furthermore, only with regular reinforcement will new brain pathways take over from the old ones.
When an individual returns to a workplace from training, more than anything else they need ongoing feedback, guidance and encouragement.
Understanding how the brain is involved in the learning process helps us to understand that the only thing that can create permanent behavioural change is frequent reinforcement - over the long term. If an individual truly desires to change an interpersonal behaviour, and is supported by the ongoing encouragement of a knowledgeable mentor or coach, then new patterns can be established. Soft skills training programmes are of course an important first step. They provide an essential introduction to tried and tested ‘models’ of behaviour and best practice. They also ignite the motivation to change. However, after the course is over it is the ongoing reinforcement of desired behaviours that has to be provided to ensure that the changes are implemented.
An organisation may invest heavily in a people skills training programme, but unless active reinforcement after the event is planned, the results will be limited and the investment wasted. This explains why even a well designed and delivered training programme cannot by itself change ingrained behaviour patterns. Without on-going and frequent reinforcement, even people who want to change are likely to return to their old, comfortable patterns.
Before commissioning any training provision, it is essential to conduct a thorough assessment of existing competence. The easiest, and arguably most effective way to do this is through 360-degree feedback, which provides a fairly objective assessment of skills that are often difficult to observe and measure. Analysis of current people skills enables priority areas to be identified. This in turn enables training providers to deliver the right courses, to the right people at the right time, so funds are spent wisely. The assessment process also acts as a powerful tool for self-awareness and therefore becomes an effective motivator for change. Repeat assessments can be useful for identifying improvements and for encouraging on-going personal development.
Develop helpful attitudes towards change
Developing individuals and teams requires the winning of hearts as well as minds. Simply developing knowledge and skills without shifting attitudes so that people are willing to embrace change, take on different approaches and new practices, will not ensure that real lasting changes will be made. Although knowledge and skills development is clearly very important, equally important is enabling learning to take place by identifying and removing any individual barriers such as resistance, doubt, self-limiting beliefs and negativity.
The personal development required to move individuals from rejection of change towards acceptance and commitment requires high levels of emotional intelligence, including self-esteem and self awareness, and an awareness of, and respect for others. In order to assist people to accept change, managers need to be able to encourage and motivate course participants prior to, as well as after training.
In-house versus external delivery
External (public/open) courses can be particularly cost-effective for training small numbers of employees. Attendance can be arranged to suit the individual, it can be arranged with little or no notice, and it gives participants the opportunity to have a glimpse into other people’s worlds at work, which can be extremely inspiring. However, sometimes people struggle to apply what they have learned on their return to the workplace. If everything at work remains unchanged, the returning trainee will find it extremely difficult to implement and sustain the required behavioural/practical changes to make a difference.
Whilst in-house training for the whole team requires a little more logistical planning, it means that every team member shares the same training experience. Well executed training exercises in which colleagues from all levels work together as equals, in a safe and structured way has tremendous benefits: it brings a fresh perspective to all and increases team understanding and rapport. It can also enable more open communication and exploration of any conflict or tensions, allowing individuals to voice their frustrations and seek joint solutions constructively.
Whilst qualitative results are hard to quantify, we believe there are many tangible benefits to investing a little more time to ensure that soft-skills training is as effective as it can be. These include creating/enabling:
- dynamic working culture – Team members become better equipped to problem solve positively and proactively, and they have the determination to strive for excellence.
- successful implementation of change - Effective leadership, individual motivation and improved communication brings active involvement, and commitment to planned changes.
- increased satisfaction – Improved communication and an open, dynamic working culture improves overall satisfaction and commitment.
- reduction in staff turnover - A more satisfied and committed, less stressed workforce is less likely to move on. Salary and other benefits become less important when team members feel respected, appreciated and supported.
- more efficient meetings - Open and honest communication, and effective facilitation of meetings saves time and improves collaborative problem solving and decision-making.
- meeting of deadlines – More effective communication and negotiation between departments means that targets are more likely to be met because of increased transparency, trust and rapport.
- increased productivity – Through effective leadership, improved motivation and communication, individuals and teams are better equipped to achieve results.
- saving of managerial time - Improved team communication and collaborative problem solving results in fewer conflicts and fewer demands on management time.
- reduction in complaints – Improved collaboration, negotiation and resolution of problems results in fewer grievances, and a reduction in internal and external complaints.
In summary, 'Soft Skills' Training can and does offer ROI through sustainable and valuable improvements, particularly when:
- It is strategically linked to individual, team and organisational needs
- It addresses individual, team and organisational attitudes to change
- It is supported by on-going reinforcements by managers and team members
- It is followed by real opportunities to practise “how to”.
If you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions on how to improve ROI from Soft Skills training, we'd be glad to hear from you...