In today’s demanding workplace, knowledge and experience alone aren’t enough to help employees move up the ladder – or to help organizations compete. More than ever, soft skills – those oh-so-important qualities such as adaptability, critical thinking and creativity – are what’s needed to bridge the gap between good and great employees (and good and great organizations).
Unlike with black-and-white technical skills, however, soft skills often fall in that gray area of subjectivity, says Tracy McCarthy, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at SilkRoad Technology.
"People have always struggled to wrap their fingers around soft skills,” says McCarthy. “But soft skills are a core part of an organization today. The truth is, they are becoming the hard skills in today’s workplace.”
Given the value organizations place on competencies like communication, leadership and collaboration, it’s essential for human resource (HR) managers to regularly assess their soft skills training programs. This helps identify areas for future employee development and growth, while providing leaders a way to gauge how investing in soft skills might impact their bottom line.
The challenge, of course, is creating objective ways to measure things that are really subjective. In this piece, I’ll point out a few ideas to keep in mind when measuring soft skills programs, and share some of the latest software tools that can simplify information gathering and analysis.
Three Keys to Successful Skills Measurement
As with any measurement initiative, the first step in assessing your soft skills programs is identifying what matters most to your organization. That's because whatever data you gather will become the basis for illustrating the value of your training programs to organizational leadership – and whether funding should continue. In talking with McCarthy, she believes there are a few key things HR managers should keep in mind:
- Determine what you’ll be measuring. Whether you’re utilizing third-party assessments, or you’ve done your own research to identify areas needing improvement, it’s important that your organization clearly defines which soft skills are most important. Your company’s core values (whether stated or inferred) should guide this discussion closely. For instance, if your organization values internal succession then ensuring employees have the right types of leadership development and mentoring would be critical.
- Get leadership on board. Without a unified front, rolling out a measurement strategy will be an uphill battle with little payoff. Anyone in leadership should have a similar answer to questions such as: What qualities make a leader successful in our organization? Establish clarity and alignment at the outset, as this measurement process will require buy-in across the board. “Although HR may be starting this conversation,” adds McCarthy, “the strategy really needs to be driven by leadership and managers.”
- Keep it simple and focused. In an ideal world, all employees would be organized, active listeners with strong communication, multi-tasking and leadership skills. But it takes time, energy and resources to cultivate these skills within an organization. That’s why it’s best to start small and focus measurement around one or two competency areas. Again, a good starting place is the soft skills most essential to your organizations’ specific goals. For example, if you are in a growth mode, then ensuring sales and customer service teams have strong communication skills would be key.
Customer & Employee Relations a Good Place to Start
In thinking about where to begin your soft skills assessment, there are two tried-and-true facets of your organization that offer a good starting place to identify areas for improvement. These include evaluating how employees interface with customers (and other key constituents) and how employees interact with one another.
For example, if employees are communicating poorly or not actively listening in meetings, it’s a clear sign that something is wrong. In order to determine whether they need further training in proactive communication or if there’s some other cause, you can explore two simple questions:
- Are customers happy and coming back? Communication and customer service skills are key to retaining customers, but how do your employees hold up against your competition? Do your customers enjoy working with your people? Efforts to provide customers with the service that keeps them coming back may require some intensive company-wide customer service training, particularly in areas such as conflict resolution or active listening. If leadership is looking to measure how soft skills deliver return on investment (ROI), this is a great place to start gathering actionable data.
- Do employees have what they need to succeed? Not surprising, it’s important to understand how your employees feel day to day – and I’m not just talking about general job satisfaction. Do they feel confident that they have the necessary skills to succeed? If you offer soft skills training, do employees find the programs effective and relevant to their jobs? If not, what do they need more of? If your people aren’t happy, it will be reflected in the way they relate to your customers and to each other – which might be an indication that you’re investing in the wrong areas.
Surveys to Software: Gathering & Reviewing Data
Though there are a number of ways to go about it, the majority of organizations still rely on traditional performance reviews to measure employees’ soft skills competencies. In fact, according to a study by the Society for Human Resources Management, 80 percent of organizations use performance evaluations to assess where employees need further development in vital soft skills.
This data would be a good place to begin formulating a baseline of how employees are doing in key areas. And your baseline serves two purposes: It gives you a chance to get a pulse of your organization and gives you a point of reference for future benchmarking.
For more specific information – beyond what a performance review would cover – you may want to go a step further and coordinate focus groups or surveys. These would enable you to gather feedback specifically about your soft skills training programs.
Do you offer enough training opportunities? And you offering the right kinds of classes? Are the course offerings helping employees grow?
Beyond performance reviews or surveys, more organizations are utilizing sophisticated soft skills aptitude tests like TalentSmart, which tests your employees based on extensive psychological and sociological research. Furthermore, new developments in talent management software also offer ways to keep tabs on key employee metrics. For example, SilkRoad recently announced its product, Point, which integrates learning and talent management via a social media platform. Point connects employees to each other, tracks competencies and measures the influence employees have across multiple areas of expertise.
Drilling even deeper, HR analytics tools found in most talent management systems are also helpful for managing ongoing evaluation. They offer organizations the ability to gather hard data and identify changes and trends in the workforce – areas that can be tracked to soft skill competencies and development. By providing actionable data on key areas – retention rates, time to proficiency, cost per employee, etc. – these tools go a long way in illustrating benchmarks that your business leaders can understand and appreciate.
Regardless of the type of tool used, the point here is that you gather the data – and then use it as your basis to evaluate the value of your training programs in the future. With this information, you can then explore questions, such as: Are you seeing increased employee retention? What improvements are these initiatives having on performance and productivity? Starting small and remaining focused helps, as does a healthy dose of patience and perseverance.
In thinking about your organization’s soft skills, which do your company value most? What opportunities or challenges have you faced in cultivating these within your employees? What types of training programs do you offer? Feel free to leave comments below.