icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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soft (s)kills: let's make it a bit harder

How to overcome the success of distorted and dysfunctional soft skills

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2013). Soft (s)kills! Let's make it a bit harder. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 2.3 (June).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2013). Soft (s)kills! Let's make it a bit harder. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 2.3 (June).

June, 28 2013 - Communication skills, negotiation skills, language skills, relationship skills, networking skills. And so on and so on. I am talking about those qualities, attitudes and capabilities that make things happening smoothly and simply without disappointing almost anybody, no matter the technicalities of the projects or the problems of the situation.

I have been an advocate of soft skills for many years, while consulting and project managing information and customer services. But let's think again: are we sure that such skills are really so important in any circumstance as we were used to claim? Or is not the case that we have diffusely adopted an algorithmic version of this powerful concept and something should be re-tuned?

Soft skills have been increasingly adopted in any field of organised and controlled human relations in a purposively simplified and predictable way, becoming what troyans are for machine-to-machine communication: a sophisticated mean to conquer others' trust. After the successful implementation of many 'Moneyball' and optimisation programs in the public and in the private sectors, the purpose of obtaining trust may be not at all anymore what you believe it is. Trust is demanded not to serve you better or to improve the quality and efficiency of the interactions but to control any digression from an expected profitable behaviour (that is not necessarily in your interest as a consumer or client). If your requests are not fitting with the system expectations, or the marketers’ predictions, soft skills can help to balance the book treating you in a dissatisfactory, demotivating and ultimately dismissing way. Because a betrayed and lost customer can be definitely cheaper to manage than a dissatisfied and complaining one.

In a huge number of situations, from commercial transactions to therapeutical communities, from health care to social sciences research or letting agencies, the rise of soft skills has led managers to consider that what really matters in order to deliver a certain service with a realistic expectation of profit margins is to follow the procedure “that works” to that extent, not to talk with people or to keep customers satisfaction at high level, as learned on the the textbooks: customer services that act within certain boundaries, following certain scripts, succeed no matter how they treat people. Whatever is unexpected can be very challenging and disappointing. That's why the soft skill training industry has quickly absorbed expertise and trends from the media and the performative arts (reality shows, threatre, classical operas) and from the sport metaphors - mostly football.

How did it happen we allowed such an impoverishment of human relations instead of that people empowerment we had imagined from the development of more pervasive communication skills supported by the information and communication technologies?

Since the beginning of the 1990s, a number or professional and academic organisations have been making investments and programs to develop soft skills, producing inventories of competences and comprehensive codes of conducts, best practices, guidances, handbooks and bodies of knowledge. The assessment and the certification of such qualities and capabilities has become a business in itself.

Then automation of call centres and outsourcing of customer services took over any other configuration and required an hypersemplified version of human interactions over the internet or via telephone.

The marathon of the soft skills army has sensibly attracted along its way during the last 20 years employers, employees, project manager and independent practitioners working in any segment of the services sector - but also in the industry and in the civil service. It is appalling from my point of view to see project managers working in the logistics or in the transport sector, for instance, mimicking that Boyatzis’s advice that twenty years ago was so inspiring for human resources managers. They have found that to make more profits is often better to dismiss any ethical motivation and remove the pleasure to have the job done properly, the inner reward that is invaluable benefit of learning on the job. Health and safety, care for customers expectations, legal compliance - all matters for the guys that have time for conversations and social media or live on welfare benefits and parents’ debts: those who have a paid job do not waste time to collect likes. Just smile, perhaps, thank you and carry on.

All sort of people able to acting roles of manager, customer services, sales representative, fundraiser, shop assistant along predictable and almost invariable scripts of interactions - designed around fixed algorithms - are the new normal: they have very little demand for training after all, and are better motivated by free cheap vouchers than by continuous professional development programs. Also the demand for management skills is quite simplified in this new soft skills based labour economy: in fact, there is no new joke to play, only the people change. And if something goes wrong, well... change more often.

And this is the way in which I suppose also the identities of false landlords, false doctors, false electricians are easily created: people learn quickly, especially the youth, how to show off not only self confidence and amiable attitude towards all gentes and cultures but also those personality traits that give their own faked propositions a certain degree of indisputable credibility - qualifications, compliance certificates, professional memberships and affiliations and references to the specific elements of knowledge in a certain domain.

The deluge of distorted and dysfunctional soft skills seems to me having almost reached a critical point in that, when there are no more old fools to play with, the system target the young fools and start chasing up ordinary people that could be in some way or circumstance considered - no matter if it is true or not, in the reign of perception - vulnerable, producing appalling successful scams and perverting the course of justice in disgraceful manners.

An opportunity to review the overrated power of soft skills and to bring ambiguous situations to accountability may come from some regulated fields. There is growing attention to complex discretionary decision making processes in which communication and negotiation skills have a great role to play: these can be situations in which human behaviours can be distorted towards unethical abusive conducts, such as those processes related to the 'protection' given by the law to disabled and vulnerable people or those processes aimed at assessing and defining the best codes of conduct for trustees of charities' boards, for example.

The OPG (Office of Public Guardian) has launched a program to safeguard adults at risks of abuses made by their own attorneys (or alleged so) that goes in this direction. The Charity Commission has launched an informal consultation about conflicts of interest for Charities Boards. In many sectors a collaborative intelligence approach can positively contrast gang subcultures and serious organised cybercriminals grown up in dysfunctional and uneducated digital and social media environment.

In sum, I have a hunch that I will not be alone for long in demanding less attention to the 'beautiful language' and more attention to consistency of behaviours, factual evidences and values: not "what can I do for you" but a more honest and straightforward "what do you want from me, now" could become the canned opening phrase of any online chat or telephone conversation. And above all, even the machines may appreciate the clarity.