Big Brains, Soft Skills

Register now

I’m no career counselor but I do know that the job requirements of the Information Age have shifted the way people work and the responsibilities they assume in many undocumented ways.

 I don’t think human resource departments are especially aware of this shift and, based on panels and sessions I've sat on or listened to, I’m very sure a lot of respected higher-education institutions don’t understand it at all. Sadly, a lot of undergrad and graduate business school is still about professors selling the latest edition of their textbook.

Start with this thought: If you have a few years or more with your employer, think about what were you originally hired to do at your current (or your last) job and how it compares to what you actually do now. How many of you think HR knows at this moment exactly what you do on the job? How much of your job did you build for yourself? What would happen if you fell off the Earth tomorrow?

It’s something about the new dynamism of business and technology. For lower, middle and some upper management, I’m becoming convinced that as the gravitational fields of business and IT intersect, more and more of us are creating our job descriptions on the fly with a mix of trained and latent skills.

Generalization is the new specialization, and it assumes that a lot of talents are at hand.

It’s worse for the most focused and driven people in our midst, the “born-to-be-a…” folks who live a certain discipline and that relates especially to a lot of very smart analytical people I know. If you’ve lost or left a job, Dice or Monster alone might not get you back in the game, so there have been a lot of stories about “soft skills,” of socializing, communication, inquisitiveness, initiative, writing and generally carrying a greater list of responsibilities, especially so as the workforce bottoms.

Even if every information worker isn’t cut out or inspired to lead, soft skills are underestimated in the opportunity they can deliver. As an editor, I bemoan much of the copy that crosses my desk from skilled IT and business professionals in unintelligible form. I am shocked at the insularity and defensiveness some IT departments express when they tell their stories. I am bored with the visions of business managers who can’t accept that their ideas are impossible to execute solely on their own terms.

Looking for objectivity, I took a soft skills quiz, (it’s also meant to sell a book) that tells me I’m weak in “communicating” and “handling others.” Without methodology, I trust this about as much as I trust a fashion magazine quiz, but it made me doubt the instincts that tell me I am a good consensus builder. (This reminded me of the experience of being allowed to review the private comments of my eighth-grade teachers upon graduation from elementary school. Had they only written “great communicator” instead of “craves attention,” my future might have been different.)

But here’s the big point and the buried lead of this story: Nobody is going to come to you and tell you to sharpen your communication and team skills. You'll be judged as you come and go. Poets and painters can wrap themselves in their passion and I’ll praise them for that. If your head goes that way, take up a trade and read Matthew Crawford’s excellent and provocative book Shop Class as Soulcraft. I’m reading it myself.

But it’s going to be a burden for the elegantly left-brained but graceless data manager who needs an organizational role in order to have a job. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell described this in his meeting with the most intellectually incisive person he’d ever met who was an abject failure of success because of his inability to articulate and communicate. Until we recognize and nurture this person in the enterprise, what you do will be self-evident and mark your chances in a group-working environment. 

You’d think compartmentalized yet diverse expertise would make you powerful but it doesn’t if nobody knows what it is you do – or if you overestimate yourself in a visible role. In writing this I’m a little scared to encourage the kind of socially adept but idea-vacant types we all see survive improbably at multiple management levels in our businesses. In baseball, they call these people “clubhouse guys,” a level below a bench player. But if you’re like me, you are separately inspired by certain persons in your organization you’d like to work closely with.

Companies and especially human resource leads need to learn a thing or two about business processes, their organization’s own core competencies and get their game together when it comes to hiring, retention, training and compensation. I'm hoping that organizations are looking closer at this topic but something tells me they’re much better at it in Sweden.

If you do fall off the Earth tomorrow, I’ll bet things will muddle along, somebody will be hired to a complex and perhaps overwhelming position and, if things go badly enough, there will be another look at your business architecture and another reorganization. Whoever comes next will need to be flexible as well as talented because we're in uncharted waters here.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.