With some 25 per cent of the federal public service workforce up for retirement in the next five years, you might think government managers would have higher priorities than fostering courtesy and collaboration among their staff. But for Susan Hall, these are just the kinds of “soft skills” that will see organizations through a potentially disruptive generational transition.
“Soft skills aren’t new,” she told participants in this year’s GTEC conference in Ottawa. “Soft skills are about managing change in business transformation. It’s about information delivery and technology adaptation for people. What we need are adaptive people, people who can change.”
Hall, a senior director with the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Corporate and Administrative Services Initiative, acknowledges that hard-nosed managers undoubtedly continue to underestimate the value of such assets. Soft skills likely still serve as the butt of many jokes, suggesting that employers are supposed to be looking for someone who can say “please” and “thank you,” when all they really want is a good software programmer, socially inept or not. Nevertheless, Hall insists that things like “please” and “thank you” do count, especially when it comes to integrating young people who may be brand new to your administrative culture.
“Everything they do, you’ve got to teach them how to do,” she said. “They can’t make a list, they can’t answer the phone, they can’t book a board room – they simply don’t know. Those are tactical skills as opposed to technical ones, the level of practicality that you learn just from being exposed to work.”
According to Hall, the distinctions are even more fundamental. Older individuals are quite content to pursue tasks independently, and you can regularly find them alone in their offices, cooped up to get a particular job done. Meanwhile, the incoming cohort have had much of their lives extensively programmed for them, from educational group work to structured play exercises. They thrive on team activities to an unprecedented extent.
Above all, Hall warns, if the swiftly departing baby boomers have amassed a great deal of knowledge, skills and best practices during the course of their careers, the future of many departments will depend on how well they convey these insights to their successors.
“The two have to work together to make the enterprise work,” she said, suggesting that such co-operation can take advantage of the newcomers’ preference for teams. “Soft skills mean teamwork, and teamwork is communicating, listening, maintaining a service culture, making work challenging and fun.”
Fun may sound like the most frivolous of perks, but her repeated references to it reflected its importance to motivation. Hall contrasted a traditional “art of war” approach to management with a more participative model, driven by soft skills. Rather than conquering and commanding others to follow, for example, managers can invite others to take part in the decision-making process and share in the responsibility for the resulting decisions.
That sense of sharing extends especially to information and communications technology, which was once merely an enabler for various business functions but has now become a business unto itself. In this context soft skills make a virtue out of providing information, as opposed to just assembling and storing it.
“It’s not hoarding our technology, it’s making it useful for others,” she said. “Regardless of the role we’re in or the business we conduct, well-managed information enables people. It is about knowledge as power, but it’s that knowledge and sharing is power.”
Hall referred to the work of Carleton University business professor Linda Duxbury, who has extensively analysed the various challenges that technology poses to organizations and the people who run them. For several years Duxbury has been arguing that government managers should make a priority out of soft skills, which often consist of competencies that should be highly prized within any organization.
Hall added that these competencies have never been more appealing. She pointed out that the number of federal employees is about the same as the number employed by General Motors, which has around six product lines. The government, however, has around 160 distinct lines, with more on the way, as people find themselves dealing with their counterparts in other federal departments, entirely different levels of government, and even academic or industrial partners.
“It used to be that we delivered in our program that which our program was responsible for,” she said. “Increasingly we have other influences.”