soft skills

What Works?

“Personal anecdote trumps data.” F. Joseph Merlino

Unfortunately, that has been the case in terms of measuring the effectiveness of education materials. But today there is What Works, a clearing-house of educational tools ("programs, products, practices and policies") that have been tested using the research methodologies (e.g., double blind clinical trials) usually used in the medical industry.

Interestingly, the non-profit world is also facing a similar dilemma.  Are their efforts effective?  While they are dealing with a lot of push-back, mainly of the "the transformation of lives can't be measure" kind, it would be interesting to see if they will adopt more rigorous testing.  For an interesting story on the challenges faced by non-profits/philanthropy in this regard, see this American Life episode.

Finally, and more important to me, I would like to see soft skill development subjected to the same type of rigor.  How can we help people develop skills like self-awareness and how do we measure whether or not our efforts were effective?  I believe companies are a great starting ground for this type of exploration and "workforce science" seems to be a good start, though less focused right now on soft skills, as opposed to technical training.



Soft Skills

Soft skills get no respect. Why? Because it's difficult to quantify. Soft skill research historically hasn't been as respected because much if it was based on qualitative research and qualitative research has a bad rap because we're so steeped in a "positivist paradigm" - we only value quantitative research.

The big shift didn't come until the Post Modern movement when physics discovered that light could be perceived as a particle or wave. For the first time then, something could be relative and beyond cause and effect, black and white. Researchers began to understand that the old theory that you could study something as a detached scientist is false. In fact, the scientist affects that which she studies and vice versa. So quantitative research can have all the same issues as qualitative research.

Which leads me to "work-force science" - the new trend to quantify human potential. It will have as many problems as qualitative research, I'm sure.

But in the end, there is this: soft skills matter.

Virtual Reality Gets Real

I think virtual reality is horribly underutilized. We could be using it to teach important social skills. What better way to test new behaviors than to be able to try them in safe, virtual environments? There is one bit of research that indicates the lessons in virtual reality make it to the real world. In an experiment, researchers found that subjects given the opportunity to fly to the rescue of a little boy in a virtual reality session acted with more empathy in the real world. They are sorting out if the flying or the task to help was the main driver of the exhibited empathy, but the results are pretty exciting, nonetheless.