Strategies to Teach Soft Skill, Business Acumen

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Some in the training space believe that teaching soft skills or business acumen, commonly known as more intangible competencies due to the obstacles a trainer may encounter measuring skill retention, is more difficult.

David S. Murphy, membership director of the International Association of Information Technology Trainers and a certified PTT (professional technical trainer) said soft skills and business acumen aren’t more difficult to measure, but trainers often don’t give learners the detailed information they need to improve their skills. He said facilitators or trainers must be willing to honestly and completely evaluate learners and give thoughtful feedback on demonstrated strengths and potential weaknesses.

“I find that most trainers are reticent, maybe even uncomfortable, offering constructive but detailed feedback to help learners improve their skills in a soft skill area,” Murphy said. “We’re so afraid of either hurting the learner’s feelings, or if we’re a commercial trainer, we have pressure upon us to not only help the learners improve their skills but keep them happy as customers, so they’ll return for more training. It’s almost as if the business requirements of running a training organization interfere with the pedagogic objectives of the actual training session.”

In order to fully evaluate the learner, trainers may have to risk emotionally offending the learner to say, ‘You know, maybe that wasn’t the best way to enact that role-play exercise.’ Then the trainer should be prepared to offer an alternative, and give the learner a chance to do the exercise again to demonstrate improved skills. Unfortunately, he said most commercial training programs move so quickly, there often isn’t time to engage in that level of detail while also taking care of the participants’ emotional needs.

“I’m not saying no trainers do it, but when I go around and look at training programs, it’s not a common thing,” he said. “We trainers generally don’t evaluate our students, and we need to. We need to have a little bit of the air of an academic teacher, so we can tell all the participant learners this is what’s missing. This is what you need or what is actually degrading from your demonstration of whatever skills are being taught.”

In additional to role-playing exercises, Murphy said asking learners to submit personal examples can be helpful learning delivery tools to teach soft skills and business acumen. For example, in a team-building class, a homework assignment might be to bring in three examples where teams have worked well and three examples where teams have fallen short of expectations. Then allow participants to share their experiences.

Trainers also should be prepared to initiate this type of conversation or promote discussion using their own experiences as a conversation starter. It’s helpful to have prepared, written descriptions or examples, which can then be presented orally.

“I suggest that’s done in writing, so that learners are taking the material home to remind them when they’re back on the job trying to apply these skills to real life,” Murphy said. “It’s also helpful to build a support network that follows on after the class. For example, share e-mail addresses and phone numbers, a student roster, so that those dozen or however many students there are can actually form a support cohort with one another over time.”

Murphy said it also may be helpful for trainers to encourage businesspeople to attend professional conferences so that they have more opportunities to practice their skills and interact with like-minded peers.

“That’s the crux of what causes social disharmony, when we can’t empathize with the needs and desire of the person with whom we’re speaking, e-mailing or writing,” he said. “Computer-mediated communication like e-mail, IMing and videoconferencing just exacerbates all the difficulties we have in our interactions.”

Murphy said that, according to several graduate programs he works with, the three most in-demand skills are teamwork or how to work with other people, presentation skills and how to write clearly and succinctly. If a trainer wants to serve learners well, these three should play a part in scheduled learning activities.

“Those three skills are what businesses are screaming for,” he said. “I tell businesspeople that when hiring employees, hire for attitude and train them for specific skills. If a person doesn’t come to a company with the right attitude, no amount of training is going to make them an effective long-term employee.”

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Kellye Whitney

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