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Breaking Down the In's & Out's of Soft-Skills

In our recent webinar on soft skills, there were several questions around the details of naming, assessing, and validating a “soft” skill through digital credentials. Let’s break these concepts down a bit further.
A working definition of a soft skill
You can call them soft skills, power skills, foundational skills or work skills. We are talking about skills, abilities and competencies that transcend work environments and are not technical or work/content-specific. For example, being able to communicate in writing is a soft skill; being able to write computer code is not because we’d describe that as a technical work-specific skill. Leadership is a soft skill because it cuts across work environments and
roles; human resource management is not because not everyone has the prerequisite knowledge nor would many people be called to apply these skills across the organization.
Step 1: Name the problem. This is not going to be a sequential guide, but if you cannot name the soft skill, you won’t be able to describe it, measure it or assign a credential to it.
Step 2: Describe the skill. It is important to describe or define a soft skill within a given a context. If you expect someone to display robust decision making skills, for instance, what
would that look like? Would they research alternatives? Would they list pros and cons? Would they prioritize? If you can operationalize a skill, you can more readily assess its existence.
Step 3: Don’t forget the context. A little self-disclosure; while I have no problem talking with people all day long for work, and while I was a former teacher, my presentation skills are
reserved for the context of working online. If you come to my house and want me to teach you about gardening, don’t expect a powerpoint or an organized lesson plan. The context in which you expect a soft skill to be displayed is crucial. In describing a skill, be clear and precise about the context.
Measuring a soft skill
Fundamentally, I believe the reason we struggle with assessment is that we are too wedded to testing. It is absolutely possible to measure one’s knowledge via a test. It is also possible to measure the likelihood of someone knowing when to use a skill via a test. However, you probably won’t be able to measure a soft skill unless you see it in action (observe) and preferably see repeat performances so you know the skill is consistent. Again, we’re talking about soft skills, not technical skills like being able to create a pivot table or draw blood. For many, this observation and documentation may seem subjective and “fuzzy.” I would argue that it depends on how well trained the observers are and the quality of the instrument used for documenting or recording the observations. Even if you gave me the most detailed checklist or leveled rubric, I will need some training on how to score. And, the best rubrics are
tested and normed so that multiple reviewers would achieve similar (if not identical) results. This is an extra task in the process, but an important one.
Creating a digital credential
Putting together the description, operationalized, and the details of what should be observed, you have the ground work for a decent digital credential recognizing a soft skill. Another way of thinking about this is “What does this credential represent and what would I expect the person to be able to do as a result?” Articulating that along with the criteria of what the earner had to do (or what was observed), you have the makings of metadata.
The makings but not yet a finished product
One of the outstanding questions from the webinar had to how we could offer a digital credential for a soft skill that might be context dependent. Then context can be stated in the metadata. “The earner can work through team conflict while working with others in an academic exercise” would be an example. This doesn’t devalue the fact that the individual has proven those skills at some point.
As we think about how digital credentials can be used to help earners surface and communicate their skills, credentials that represent soft skills are a natural extension of one’s technical and content-specific competencies. It’s well worth the effort to name, assess and validate soft skills through digital credentials.