The Challenge of Measuring Soft Skills

As the use of automation and artificial intelligence ramps up in the workplace, organizations are discovering skills gaps in some unexpected places. Although technological proficiency is in high demand, it’s the high-level soft skills — such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, and an ability to handle complexity — that drive most workers’ ability to work alongside machines. 

And we’re facing massive deficiencies in these skills. 

Or are we? 

Historically, all but the most sophisticated enterprise learning and development teams have struggled to measure soft skills at scale. Even if these skills are already widespread in the workforce, we often lack the shared language and metrics we need to identify and foster them. 

And that presents a significant problem. We’re facing increasingly complex business challenges and environments. The World Economic Forum predicts that more than 1 billion jobs — nearly a third worldwide — are going to be transformed by technology between now and 2030. We must be certain that our workforce has the soft skills to navigate changing situations.

Pinning Down Your Definitions

Soft skills are less concrete and tangible than hard skills. You can measure technical proficiency with a test assignment, for example, but measuring someone’s empathy requires more nuance. 

The primary roadblock is that we often have different definitions of what soft skills look like, and we usually don’t share those definitions with each other inside organizations to improve clarity. Before attempting to measure soft skills, you need to establish a shared definition of each skill, as well as clearly delineated behaviors that indicate when that skill has been mastered. 

For example, one manager might define leadership as removing roadblocks to facilitate team success, which might manifest in asking team members what’s getting in their way and offering to move through it. But another manager might define leadership as being highly involved in driving each stage of production, which might manifest as scheduling frequent check-ins. 

Once you’ve agreed on what each soft skill means and how it’s displayed in your organization, you can move on to measuring where those skills are concentrated in your workforce.  

Prioritizing Meaningful Metrics 

Similarly, soft skills are particularly hard to build via traditional L&D offerings, such as online courses or modules. Those offerings might give your workforce a better sense of concepts at a high level but don’t guarantee employees can apply those concepts in specific real-life situations. 

Since completion doesn’t always translate to changed behaviors, measuring soft skills based on coursework-based testing alone creates a problem for metrics. Just because an emotional-intelligence course has a high completion rate, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that your workforce has developed more or higher-quality EQ. 

Soft skills are best learned and measured through behaviors, which provide tangible evidence of improvement. Coursework can provide a high-level foundation for your soft skills curriculum, but you also need opportunities to put learned concepts into action. 

Article Continues Below

Develop situational learning opportunities, whether controlled (like a simulation) or free-form (like on-the-job learning). A controlled environment offers clearer metrics, but applying concepts on the job with a coach or manager’s oversight often results in better learning outcomes.

Then measure the outcomes by observing behaviors within these learning opportunities over time or by conducting periodic assessments. Train managers to understand which behaviors signal skill mastery and how they can use assessment feedback to measure current skills and create a custom, future-oriented curriculum.

Additionally, set specific metrics for each soft skill your organization prioritizes. You’ll end up generating a lot of data, which can help you track soft-skill development over time. 

Setting Baseline Proficiencies

With the right workforce training and infrastructure in place, it’s possible to benchmark your most valued soft skills. Start with the World Economic Forum’s list of skills that will be most sought after by 2025, as predicted in the 2020 Future of Jobs report. These vital skills fall into four categories: problem-solving, self-management, working with people, and technology use and development.

Internally, align your workforce — especially front-line managers — on what each of these soft skills looks like in action. Develop specific definitions for each department or job family so there’s no uncertainty about identifying skills across the workforce. Once everyone is aligned, you can set a baseline proficiency for each skill. Your baseline for active learning, for instance, might be mastering one new competency every quarter. Create baseline goals that are specific, relevant to your definition of the skill, and easily measurable so that you can track workforce progress.

External benchmarks are trickier simply because definitions of soft skills are so variable and lack broadly set standards. There may be some standards within industries or professional organizations, however, that can help set external benchmarks. Each of the responsibilities listed in HRCI’s content exam outlines, for instance, could be cross-listed with the soft skills that support them so that your HR team has a baseline at every level.

Soft skills have always been a key driver of business success. But during a time when work is rapidly becoming dominated by the presence of machines, those human soft skills are increasingly more valuable. The time to future-proof your workforce is now. 

Dr. Amy Dufrane is the CEO of HRCI. As a global business leader, Dufrane is committed to advancing organizations by identifying opportunities to develop human capital responsive to the competitive economy's demands. She holds a doctorate from The George Washington University, an MBA and MA from Marymount University, and a BS from Hood College. She is certified by HRCI as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). She also has a Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential from the American Society of Association Executives, The Center for Association Leadership. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Topics