Insights - Soft Skills Driven Design.

Soft Skills Driven Design.

by Dr. Thomas Papanikolaou on Aug 1, 2017

Over the last decades we moved from a single job for life to a portfolio career model. According to LinkedIn "the average number of companies professionals worked for in the five years following graduation has nearly doubled" and this is a trend that will accelerate. While LinkedIn expects job-hoping to reduce as employees are getting older, "younger generations are likely to work for more companies in the second decade of their careers than previous generations did".

Several factors have contributed to this change in job mobility: firstly the economic recession in the United States and the European Union (forced mobility, "brain drain"), secondly the fact that Millennials are more interested than previous generations in trying out new jobs before settling on a career (sociologically-driven mobility), and last but not least, the impact of new technology substituting humans in a variety of jobs (technology-driven mobility). The latter is often in the news as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data-enabled robots replace not only farming and manufacturing jobs but also knowledge-based professions like actors, teachers, therapists, lawyers, insurance underwriters, financial analysts, taxi drivers, movie stars, ...

For Human Resources (HR) functions in enterprises this evolution poses a number of serious challenges

  • The first set of challenges is related to the traditional scope of HR within a company's strategy: in what has been called a "war for talent" how to develop a brand that attracts new qualified employees? How to detect the high-potentials within that talent pool?
  • The second set addresses the career model evolution: as job-hopping accelerates how to ensure that productivity gains can materialise faster? Is it possible and, if yes, how can HR soften the impact of the macro-economically and sociologically-driven employee churn?
  • The third category is even broader and even existential: what is the function of HR in a future where jobs are "replaced" by AI and Big Data-enabled robots that exhibit vocational skills better than their human creators? What is the impact to the "remaining" jobs, and the people that perform those jobs? How do future jobs in the era of AI, Robots and Big Data look like?

This profound transformation of the workplace creates an inflection point, a moment of truth, for every enterprise and enterprise solution provider:

  • Are current enterprise HR strategies and tools used to implement those still effective / applicable / relevant?
  • Are current enterprise solution providers creating tools for professions that will cease to exist? If yes, how should new solutions look like?

Let us look into those questions in more detail.

SOFT SKILLS IN FOCUS

With a variety and a constantly increasing number of jobs being performed by AI, Robots and Big Data solutions, soft skills have become the new hiring criteria. Demonstrating resilience, flexibility, adaptability and decision-making is often a far more important employee quality than knowing how to operate a specific piece of software - this can be trained or automated. Accountability and teamwork, as well as having the work ethic and learning ability required to pick-up those vocational skills that are yet to be invented, are more important than encyclopaedic knowledge - Search and Analytics on Big Data can fill such a gap.

Measuring soft skills has evolved tremendously over the last years, away from antiquated text-based questionnaires towards gamified Situational Judgement Tests. This new generation of psychometric tests are made with Millennials and Generation Z in mind i.e. those who have recently entered and / or will soon enter the workplace. Scientific validity is what differentiates serious solution providers from bespoke game developers. An example of a serious solution provider is Owiwi, whose assessment tool allows HR departments to acquire a deep and scientifically reliable insight into a candidate's soft skills profile, and use this as an indicator e.g. in the selection process as well as in training and development.

Beyond the strategic ability to thrive in a changing and often resource-constrained environment, there is a strong financial incentive behind the need for focus of HR departments on soft skills: a US survey has found that miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US $420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US $62.4 million per company per year.

It is therefore no surprise that soft skills assessment tools have become a key part of the HR toolset.

DESIGNING FOR SOFT SKILLS

Looking at current enterprise software solutions reveals a gleam picture: they are designed to be operated by a knowledgeable human and optimised to make workflows more efficient. Humans who, as discussed, change jobs increasingly frequently and take the trained knowledge with them as they leave. Workflows for jobs that may cease to exist. This represents an enormous misalignment between the solutions being created and the changing needs of the workplace. Here are some key observations:

  • Software tools we use today are like digital hammers e.g. you can use a spreadsheet software a million times, it is still as effective as the current user. Current tools never learn.
  • The experience of software tools we use today is static and designed with averages in mind to fit a large number of users, instead of adapting to each individual user currently using the tool. Think of your mobile phone. When has the phone's user interface ever changed to make it easier for you to find what you use most frequently?
  • Current software tools are designed to improve the efficiency in performing actions and progressing through workflows, instead of suggesting which actions to perform. For example most modern Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems provide efficient click-to-call functionality to reach out to customers. How many of those CRMs though suggest the best way (communications channel, time, ...) a customer prefers to be reached?

SOFT SKILLS DRIVEN DESIGN

Motivated by the above observations, at Neos Chronos we have been working towards developing a new design approach for digital services. The new approach uses AI and Big Data as enabling technologies to move the focus from improving tools, to improving humans, and more specifically their soft skills. We call this design approach "soft skills driven design". The following table provides a comparative view of the evolved approach:

Design today produces tools that

  • Are as good as the user and unable to learn from users
  • Have a predefined experience optimised to fit a mass market audience
  • Focus on improving efficiency of actions and workflows

Soft skills driven design produces tools that

  • Are as good as the best user that ever used the tool because they learn
  • Offer an continuously-adapting experience optimised for each individual user
  • Focus on improving the user's soft skills

Developing according to soft skills driven design requires the designer to answer the question "how does the feature / function / service / ... I am creating improve the user's soft skills?" at the start of the design process. Starting with this question fundamentally changes the outcome.

SOFT SKILLS DRIVEN DESIGN EXAMPLES

Let us walk through a number of examples to showcase the difference in approach soft skills driven design introduces. For simplicity, the examples below focus on workplace use cases and software tools.

  • CALENDAR APP

    Imagine the calendar app you know and use today. Now ask the question, how could a calendar app improve the soft skills of its user? Here are some example answers:

    • It could include time management best practices and techniques and e.g. recommend bundling meetings at specific times of day. Such times could be derived by AI, analysing the user's and meeting participants' activity and context (calls, emails, location, ...) and taking those as input to the recommendations provided.
    • It could include reminders based on the individuals current context (distance to meeting, Expected Time of Arrival, even punctuality history, ...)
    • It could include a personal AI assistant to handle rescheduling without requiring user intervention.

    The result would be a calendar app that would support its user through recommendations that continuously train good habits. The app would be helping the user become an expert in time management, it would improve the user's conscientiousness in keeping promises (arriving on time) and increase the user's flexibility and adaptability by performing tasks on the user's behalf.

  • MAIL/ MESSAGING APP

    Imagine the mail / messaging app up you use today. Now ask the question, how could a communication app improve the soft skills of its user? Here are some example answers:

    • It could include cultural etiquette recommendations based on the communication receiver's background, previous interactions, subject of communication, etc.
    • It could provide hints on writing style and tone based on subject, receiver's age, ... highlighting potentially aggressive passages through AI tone analysis.
    • It could offer hints on how to formulate / rewrite certain parts to increase clarity, and/or suggest which attachments to include.

    The result would be a mail/messaging app that would support its user display a consistent behaviour, enhance its etiquette, reinforce friendliness, self-awareness, and assertiveness soft skills.

  • JUNIOR SALES REP APP

    Imagine your Customer Relationship Management software. Now ask the question, how could a CRM improve the soft skills of Junior Sales Representatives? Here are some example answers:

    • It could include recommendations on the best way (communications channel, time, frequency, ...) a customer prefers to be reached (see above!) using historical engagement data. Hereby each interaction would be used as a new information point.
    • It could provide hints on writing style and tone of written communications based on subject, receiver's age, ... highlighting potentially questionable passages through AI tone analysis (note the intentional repetition: soft skills have the benefit of being transferable across jobs).
    • It could offer hints on how to formulate / rewrite certain parts to increase clarity, and/or suggest which attachments to include (yet another repetition!).
    • It could offer useful content to share proactively, based on the customer's profile and historical data.

    The result would be a CRM that would support a junior sales rep learn and display a consistent behaviour, improve its self-confidence, selling and customer service passion soft skills.

More such example cases are possible! Imagine a Sales Manager App that would combine all of the above information with actual performance data, to improve the sales manager's decision-making, consistent behaviour, supervising with confidence, ... soft skills.

PHILOSOPHY AND HARD FACTS

The discussion on the danger that may arise from AI and Robots is, and will be, on-going for the foreseeable future. For us, technology evolution represents a unique chance for a better future for humanity if the right "contract" is made upfront. In the future we, at Neos Chronos, would like to live in, this "contract" is software built according to soft skills driven design, with technology creating time and thinking space for humans to evolve their unique skills: creative thinking, empathy, decision-making, ... helping humans reach their full potential.

In this version of the future everyone wins: people, businesses, and society.

Let us discuss the hard facts. Firstly, even the cynics will admit that when all people win, society wins. What about businesses though? Is there an obvious argument to motivate the need for a re-orientation towards soft skills driven design? The answer is "yes".

  • Imagine enterprise A with dumb enterprise tools that never learn from its employees. Enterprise A needs to "start from scratch", "recover from the shock", ... every time a key employee who has been trained (at a cost!) to use those dumb tools decides to move on, taking with him / her a part of the enterprise's memory.
  • Compare that enterprise to enterprise B whose tools are built using soft skills driven design, learn from all previous employees, retain the best practices, and can use this knowledge to turn new employees into experienced contributors in a short amount of time.

Which enterprise do you think can cope better with the evolving and rapidly changing workplace? Which enterprise can get a faster and bigger return on investment from their employees? Which enterprise can cope with the inevitable employee churn more effectively?

The obvious answer - by any criteria - is enterprise B, whose tools represent teachable knowledge and experience, and are thus an enterprise-unique asset, and a continuously improving competitive advantage.

IN SUMMARY

Soft skills have become the new constant in the evolving workplace, and tools that can reliably measure soft skills are a key part of the HR toolset. As AI and Big Data are being widely adopted to perform vocational tasks, the future of digital services (enterprise and consumer) lies in soft skills driven design. This new, human-centric, humanity-improving and business-benefiting approach in designing software will pave the way towards a future we, at Neos Chronos, believe is worthwhile living in.

CREDITS & REFERENCES

Disclaimer: Neos Chronos acts as an advisor to Owiwi.

For the avoidance of doubt, Neos Chronos are not affiliated with, and have no financial interest in any other of the companies mentioned in this article. All names and trademarks mentioned herein are the property of their respective owners. Please observe the Neos Chronos Terms of Use.

  1. Wikipedia: Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Millennials, Soft Skills, Generation Z
  2. CNBC: Lawyers could be the next profession to be replaced by computers
  3. Fast Company: Bet You Didn't See This Coming: 10 Jobs That Will Be Replaced By Robots
  4. The Guardian: Actors, teachers, therapists - think your job is safe from artificial intelligence? Think again
  5. IBM Watson: Tone Analyzer
  6. LinkedIn: LinkedIn Data Shows That Job-Hopping is Accelerating (Particularly Among Women), Millennials Job-Hop More Than Previous Generations, & They Aren't Slowing Down
  7. Owiwi: Website, Gamification in Recruitment and Selection
  8. SHRM: The Cost of Poor Communication

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For more information on how our advisory services could help you move towards soft skills driven design, please contact us to arrange an introductory meeting.

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