One of the fashionable terms floating around these days is “soft skills”. But what exactly are these soft skills? If we have a term soft skills, does that mean there are skills which are hard also!

‘Skill' as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “The ability to do something well”. And management gurus relate soft skills to emotional quotient and define soft skills as ‘a cluster of personality traits'. During the 70s and 80s, recruitment in companies and later growth in the career were measured in terms of hard skills (intelligent quotient) possessed by a person.

These included knowledge in a particular field, experience in working on a set of machines, ability to apply theoretical knowledge to practical applications, logical and analytical reasoning etc. Most of these skills are generally imparted as a part of the academic curriculum at school and college and therefore an academically successful student was expected to succeed in life and career too. However, over a period of time, the dynamically changing society, technology and economy have brought about a phenomenal shift in the skills required for a person to succeed in career and in life.

“This sea change was precipitated by many developments which inter alia include the macro economic shift from secondary sector to tertiary sector, the enhanced complexities in work places like the increased emphasis on team work, greater participation of women and the concomitant gender sensitivity and also superior benchmarks of quality and pace,” says Mohammed Abdullah, director of Conduira, a training and placement institution. Recent studies have clearly pointed out the fact that irrespective of the industry, job type or rank, there are a few traits that high performing individuals possess. All such skills today are being clubbed and termed as ‘soft skills'.

“Typically, soft skills can be defined as the skill that enables an individual to engage and interact effectively with others, obtain acceptance, build consensus and provide assistance, leadership and direction,” says P.V. Rama Sasank of Conduira.

The hard skills are usually easy to observe, quantify and measure and thus easy to train and acquire. However, soft skills - being more behavioural in nature - are a result of various influences and interactions one has had in his or her life since childhood. These influences have long term implications - both positive and negative. Hence, most of the individuals, by the time they reach an age of employability, already possess a few soft skills - positive as well as negative - and therefore soft skill training includes a lot of unlearning and relearning issues. “Many students confuse the concept of soft skills with English communication skills. This is not really true. Communication skills are very much a part of the soft skills, but only a ‘part'. Soft skills go much further enabling the individual to discharge his or her responsibilities in the most effective and efficient way possible both at work and at home,” say Abdullah.

What are the soft skills that organisations look for in a candidate who is just entering the workforce? “Primarily the companies look for the ability to learn. In addition, companies today are surmounting geographical barriers and as a result, teams often comprise employees from different cultural and geographical backgrounds. Being able to appreciate these diverse views and assimilate them is a challenge and recent graduates are expected to adapt to these changes as soon as possible. Further, in a multi-cultural team, an ability to communicate becomes super-necessary and fluency in business language English and National language Hindi has become an imperative. Business meetings over telephone are norm of the day and e-mail has become the standard business communication - therefore a student is expected to have not just oral but also good written communication skills – non-ambiguity, conciseness and crispness being the desired parameters. The biggest challenge, a student faces when he is on board, is the ability to work in a team.

“And last but not the least, companies often place good faith in their employees and often give them sizeable responsibilities very early in their career. It is not surprising to find a 25-year-old leading a 30-member team and being responsible for revenues up to Rs. 500 crore. In such a scenario, ethics and integrity become supremely important,” says Sasank.

The first step in developing good soft skills is to unlearn the negative traits developed and relearn. Unless they have seen success in applying a new skill or method, they are not convinced that a change is required.

“Another major reason for the failure of many training programmes is also the individual's expectation of a fast result. Soft skills take time to be developed. One should usually persevere to put a skill learnt in practice so that it becomes a habit and seeps into one's behaviour,” says Abdullah.