[Column] Mandla Mbonambi: The importance of soft skills in a digital world
In a recent report entitled ‘New Leaders Needed Now’, Accenture emphasised the importance of leaders who have soft skills in driving long-term success for two very demanding, digitally-driven industries – aerospace and defence. These soft skills, so labelled because they are not the hardcore IT skills that have traditionally dominated decision making and hiring, are the ones that divide good leaders from great and help forge successful teams and organisations. Problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, emotional intelligence, accountability, and flexibility – these are, according to Mandla Mbonambi, CEO of Africonology, the keys that unlock a world of potential.
“When building digital teams, it makes sense to focus on technical skills,” he adds. “Of course, it does, but focusing exclusively on these skills does not do the business any favours. It can often lead to fairly toxic and unpleasant working environments that don’t pay enough attention to the people factor. And it’s people who make any project or team a success.”
Over the past few years, organisations have begun to recognise the importance of softer skills in building more coherent and constructive digital teams, and this has been given a hearty shove by the global pandemic. Yes, the topic is tired, but the reality is that teams with an abundance of soft-skilled talent have been better equipped to deal with the isolation and complexities of remote working. A recent analysis in the Harvard Business Review found that leaders need to have vulnerability and empathy to see the world through the crisis. This is echoed in research by Harvard University, Stanford Research Centre and the Carnegie Foundation that found 85% of job success comes from well-developed soft and people skills while only 15% of success comes from technical skills and knowledge – the so-called hard skills.
“Teams can have an abundance of hard skills, they can code the leg off a donkey and transform testing into an art form, and yet they can still fail,” says Mbonambi. “There has to be a balance, a balance that recognises how different the world of work has become, and the demands that the new workplace puts on people, process and thinking. And this balance is achieved by focusing on improving employee soft skills development and recognising the value of these skills.”
In December 2020, the World Economic Forum pointed out that around 50% of all employees will need to reskill by 2025 and puts critical thinking and problem-solving at the top of the list of most needed skills. The other skills underscored by the organisation include analytical thinking, active learning, creativity and originality, leadership, resilience and flexibility. Interestingly, these are complemented by the need to have skills in technology use, design and programming.
“Technology is not a skill that should now be shoved aside in favour of great communication and creative thinking,” says Mbonambi. “Instead, it has become essential for organisations to blend the two, to find the gaps in skills within teams and fill them with relevant training and support. It is all very well to bang on about how soft skills save teams, but this has to be followed up with consistent and relevant skills development.”
There is a mistaken belief that those that sit within digital roles are disinclined to be social or engage in collaborative ventures or embrace their softer sides. The reality is that many of those with strong aptitudes in hard skills benefit from having their soft skillsets enhanced with training and development. As the world emerges from the clutches of the pandemic and workplaces adopt more hybrid ways of working, this is the perfect time to focus on building relevant skills in digital teams.
“This also applies to working with teams that are brought in to support the organisation in software testing or QA,” concludes Mbonambi. “Instead of hiring teams that have the strongest digital credentials, also look to companies that build teams with rich skillsets that include proven capabilities in problem-solving and creative thinking. These are the teams that will transform your systems and collaborate with your teams and deliver results that go beyond the expected.”