Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Soft Skills Are Hard

It was Plato who taught us that thinking is remembering. When I first read that (I took a course on Plato and Aristotle in the fall semester of my sophomore year when I was 18 and had no prior background in Philosophy) I had no clue what Plato was talking about. Now it makes more sense. There is that dreaded phrase – been there, done that – which unfortunately is used way to much and says something about the closed mindedness of the speaker, since it conveys that having a like prior experience blocks the possibility of any learning from the current episode. But, more to the point, there is the notion that any new idea or experience must confront a person’s world view and via some process of internal negotiation that still is a mystery to me, the new idea or experience is integrated in, sometimes without any change in the world view but once in a while with a dramatic change in stance. The world view itself is based on past experience and prior acts of incorporation and thus in any current thinking we bring bits and pieces of our past to bear. Plato had it right.

In a Chronicle Update from last week there was a piece about MBA students and the companies who hire them in discord about the importance of teaching soft skills, with the companies thinking this is crucial and the students feeling it is unimportant. This piece struck a chord with me, partly because I work in a Business School and partly because whenever I see expectations that are out of wack and where the market doesn’t seem to provide self-correction, I wonder if I can provide an explanation for the persistent dissonance. This post is my attempt at doing just that.

I don’t have an MBA, never took an MBA course, and on the details am quite ignorant about how MBA instruction happens. But I think my own soft skills are reasonably well honed, that at least in a University setting I know how to interact and negotiate with a wide variety of people – students, faculty, administrators, and staff – and that indeed at this point I’m pretty comfortable with just about any audience I might be with on campus. (The only real discomfort I’ve had in meetings in the last 3 or 4 years were (1) in a meeting about classroom construction with the construction people themselves where I felt like an outsider and (2) a couple of meetings with the Provost present where I felt like a school child.) Egotistical to the last, I believe my own experience can help in understanding the soft skills issue, in spite of my lack of knowledge of MBA instruction.

When I was a very junior faculty member I was known to be extremely mathematical in my orientation and while a nice guy perhaps difficult to understand on economic issues, especially by more senior faculty members who didn’t have as strong a theoretical orientation. Also, I hung around economists in my social life, other assistant professors in the department, and with them felt quite at ease. This replicated my graduate school experience where I hung out mostly with grad students in econ. The effect was to create a sense that I could be comfortable in this cloistered setting but that it was risky to communicate outside the immediate cohort; I might feel uncomfortable and not well understood.

Having kids began to change that a bit and especially being on the Board of Directors of the daycare my kids attended because then there was a different commonality that drew the parents on the Board together, our children and the care they were getting, and the interaction was with a different set of people. Then things changed more substantially as I began to do ALN and things really amplified when I became an administrator in SCALE.

That started in Summer 1996, when I was 41. The previous year, as a SCALE faculty member, I had engaged with several others in an ongoing discussion in FirstClass, about how to teach with the technology. In that online conference there were both faculty members from a variety of disciplines and support folks, also variously situated, and we were able to interact well, each representing his own point of view in the argument. In one sense, participating actively in that discussion was a good foundation for what came next.

Along with Cheryl Bullock, who was part of the SCALE evaluation team, I set out to interview as many SCALE faculty as I could. My motivation was to build connections with them. John Ory, who led the SCALE evaluation, and I had agreed that Cheryl and I would tag team because Cheryl was not having much luck interviewing faculty members on her own.

I was terribly frightened about this at first. I guessed, incorrectly, that I needed to show disciplinary knowledge in the faculty member’s subject matter, and just how would I do that? I didn’t realize that much of my thinking about teaching with technology did generalize and that I could hold up my end of the conversation quite well. But subject matter expertise was only part of it. In addition, I didn’t realize that my personal interaction style could work well with quite a variety of audiences. The problem I had communicating with other economists in my department happened because I tried to talk to them in the language of formal economics. Had I been informal, however, I’d have been more successful. Talking about teaching and learning, informal was the only option for me; I didn’t have any prior training. That proved to be an advantage.

There’s still more to it. There is knowing how to argue and be collegial at the same time. There is understanding the need to give the other person enough space so she feels free to express herself. There is communicating in a way where repeatedly there are tests whether the message is being understood, the asking of a question for clarification while pushing the discussion along a little, the trying to tie what she is saying to my personal experience. And there is the making it all fun by recognizing in the other that they have thought about the issues but haven’t been able to give them voice and doing so is a reward in itself.

I knew how to do all of this, though before the interviews started I wasn’t explicitly aware that I had this capability. I learned these things not by taking any classes but rather from my living situation at Cornell when I was junior and senior, at 509 Wyckoff Road. But during college I thought about it a little bit differently. At that time (I think this is still true but I’m ready to be educated otherwise) most kids of college age put on an act, certainly with their parents, quite possibly with any other authority source like an employer or a professor, and then often even with their peers. Being yourself – letting your guard down so to speak – makes you more vulnerable. The act is partly, perhaps mostly, a defense mechanism; it’s not merely trying to be what you think others want you to be; it is surviving in the social environment in which you find yourself.

At Wyckoff Road we didn’t put on an act and we had great conversations. We accommodated the sense of vulnerability by being somewhat careful about who was part of our group and acting within that fairly cloistered setting. My junior year I lived on the second floor and did things with many other people who lived in house, though oddly not much with my roommate whom I had known in High School; he hung out with a different group. The next year I got a single on the third floor and the bunch of us who lived up there became a tighter group, though we did interact a fair amount with some others in the house.

Two others who also had singles on the third floor were grad students, one in Physics, the other in Human Ecology. Both had lived at Wyckoff the year before and while neither was a “ringleader” for the group, they got the ethos without trouble and fit right in. The other room, off the kitchen which was our hangout place, was a double. It had two undergrads who chose to live there largely because they were members of the sorority right across the street and for many of their meals and social activities they’d be at the sorority rather than at 509. One of these studied human nutrition, the other was a hotel-ee.

These two both really enjoyed the be yourself approach we all took, but it took them some time to get used to it and unlike the rest of us our existence at 509 probably served as a refuge from the rest of their lives, where indeed they did put on an act. I did my part to make this work, part of which was simply going with the flow rather than dictating terms. I can’t recall the details of how this came about but my junior year we went out to listen to music a fair amount and often went to the Stables Inn, where I drank Black Russians. (One thing that does change from being an undergrad to being middle aged is our taste for drink.) As a senior, I don’t think we did that as much if at all but I recall going to Hojo’s quite frequently on Friday night for all you can eat pancakes.

This world of open conversation operated almost completely outside our classes and the subject matter there almost never came up in the discussion, except peripherally, so we were quite democratic in choice of topic and how to contribute to it. To me this matters a great deal and is really important when considering how focused college education can get nowadays. The diversity of background was a huge plus for us. It encouraged participation without requiring expertise ahead of time.

So in that sense I was much more open during my college years than I was as an assistant professor. The conversations as an assistant professor tended to be mostly on the same things – departmental politics – and really narrowed things compared to my undergraduate days. Being open to subjects is the essence of soft skills. And delighting in conversation on a wide variety of topics is also critical. The important ability is to bring in something form one’s personal experience that creates a tie, some stake in what is being discussed, but not forcing that and not narrowing the conversation. Courses tend to do the opposite, especially as they get steeped in a particular discipline.

At some point in the trajectory, whether in the major as an undergrad or in graduate studies, school deliberately tries to narrow, to encourage depth in the subject matter being investigated. Soft skills want us to be generalists. That is frightening because the student is not sure what he has to bring to the table and it is more frightening if the person hasn’t been around the block at least a couple of times. The typical MBA got his undergrad degree say at age 22, then enters the work for about 5 years, gets the MBA and now is supposed to re-emerge with their company in a more mature role. But he is still shy of his 30th birthday – a veritable babe in the woods. What experiences while in the MBA program could possibly overcome that sense of being the novice afterwards? Wouldn’t this student cling to the technical training so there would be some veil to be wrapped in, both for self-protection and to demonstrate some expertise so as to establish some personal credibility?
Academic professional programs might try to inject soft skills by attempting to produce the type of diversity that I experienced at 509 Wyckoff Road. One might envision students from Engineering, Law, Human Resource Education, and Business put in teams to simulate the type of communication issues that will come up when these folks return to the world of work. This would give the students some way to gauge whether they successfully could bridge gaps in knowledge and have valuable conversations, discussions that led to interesting action plans. But setting up something like that would be quite hard to do and mostly it would have to occur outside the course context, so might elicit little interest from the faculty. Absent such a program, how could the student possibly develop the confidence to communicate in general terms with a varied audience?

Now let me focus on a different part of my experience and discuss a different dimension of the soft skill capability. Since I didn’t take an English or a Writing course in college, I learned a bit about what was taught there when I took a Writing Across the Curriculum Seminar in summer 1996. My recollection is that there was a hierarchy of writing skill with summary at or near the bottom and analysis or synthesis near the top. Further, it seemed I had been demanding from my own students only those higher level skills and expecting those to be delivered in a mature manner.

Here I want to focus on summary, because now I think it is critical while in 1996 I thought it unimportant. And in discussing summary I want to distinguish it from “taking minutes,” which in the way it’s been practiced here recently takes on the form of those letters about the family that some people send out at Christmas time – Cassandra went on an outing with her French club, Michael found a job working as a park ranger in the summer – more an annotated list than a coherent story. That’s not what I mean by summary.

I never understood why we’d have students summarize other rather comparatively short pieces of writing, for example a newspaper article. This invites plagiarism and begs the question of what value the student is providing in working through the exercise. But providing a summary of a discussion that wasn’t otherwise recorded is an entirely different matter. When one does that there is a demonstration of understanding the underlying issues and there is a potentially productive use, bringing that conversation to others who weren’t there. The summary is also a useful way to follow up with the participants, get their buy in or their further contributions.

Writing such a summary, something I find myself increasingly occupied with as an ordinary part of my job, requires being able to get to the gist of the matter, to first distill to the essence and then providing supporting information. In turn, this requires providing a framework within which to consider the conversation. Analysis of the framework proves the way for organizing the summary.

Now in my 50s, coming up with such a framework is something I do intuitively with little effort, and I suspect that is likewise true for most senior executives in the business world. The skill is not unlike coming up with a formal mathematical model to analyze an economic problem. It shares with the math modeling the need for abstraction. But it differs in the demand for simplicity and the need to produce something quickly – one, two, three brush strokes and we’re done. Beyond that it is self-defeating as the detail cuts against the grain.

Not all students have a taste for abstraction and one of the reasons that we get those Christmas letter type of reports is that the person doesn’t know how to bring the argument to a higher plane. Teaching a sense of abstraction is hard. Where we do it, we normally provide the tools for the abstraction already and then the skill to be acquired is to match the scenario to the particular model. Students struggle with this and it in itself doesn’t teach students to come up with their own models. Further, those who don’t like math may look for a different avenue to develop this type of thinking, but I’m not sure what to recommend. And for those who do like the math and the abstraction there is still the issue that the representation has to be sufficiently simple that it can be readily communicated. Some people making an abstract argument get wrapped up in detail – I find myself doing that from time to time and almost certainly it is a mistake.

Can we teach MBAs to make simple ad hoc models that do focus on the forest, not the trees? This issue is tied to the other one. Students welcome the comfort of their own cohort because they don’t have to adjust their language to the least common denominator. They aim for sophistication, not simplicity, and they may very well confuse being straightforward in communication with being simple-minded. They may also not understand how much thinking and effort goes into producing a summary that is understandable and easy to read.

Personally, I learned these things from failure. I made many mistakes. My current approach, bring it down to bring it up, took a very long time to cultivate. Part of the implicit question behind teaching MBAs soft skills is whether we can accelerate the learning, make the failures more planned and part of the curriculum, or avoid them altogether so the students can go to the next steps.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve tried to show what is at issue. The student’s ego and the student’s courage are at stake. Soft skills test both of those when they are practiced, especially at the beginning. Students want to be prepared. Unfortunately, that can be self-defeating.

1 comment:

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