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Q&A With Authors of Proving the Value of Soft Skills

Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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For years, managers convinced executives that soft skills could not be measured and that the value of these programs should be taken on faith. Executives no longer buy that argument but demand the same financial impact and accountability from these functions as they do from all other areas of the organization. Proving the Value of Soft Skills: Measuring Impact and Calculating ROI (ATD Press, August 2020) offers a new methodology for showing the ROI of soft skills programs—one that eliminates the perceived problem that soft skills cannot be measured.

In this Q&A, authors Jack Phillips, Patti Phillips, and Rebecca Ray share some insights from the book.

Why did you write this book?

Jack Phillips: We continue to see executives concerned about the value of soft skills. Most executives clearly see hard skills as more important than soft skills, and we know better. Our data shows that soft skills can often drive more value in an organization. We need to continue to provide data to senior executive groups about the value of soft skills.

What are soft skills?

Patti Phillips: Typically, soft skills are transferrable, personal, and interpersonal skills. They cut across all types of skill sets and can be as simple as the skill of interviewing someone and as complex as problem-solving or critical thinking. The typical soft skills programs that people normally think about are leadership development, team building, communication, critical thinking, creativity, onboarding, coaching, and other programs that often involve significant interpersonal communications.

How do they differ from hard skills?

Patti Phillips: Soft skills are interpersonal skills that usually characterize a person’s relationship with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered complementary to hard skills, which usually refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills. Soft skills relate to behavior and how you work. They involve a combination of people skills, social skills, and communication skills and can even involve personality traits, attitudes, attributes, social intelligence, emotional intelligence and more.

Hard skills are often referred to as technical or job-related skills. There are STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) considered hard because they come from exact sciences. We also have technical skills used in teaching people the technical aspects of their job and usually involve tasks, procedures, and processes such as teaching an engineer how to design a product or a plumber how to repair a pipe. There are also job-related skills, which involve detailed tasks, steps, procedures, and processes that employees must follow.

At times, the soft skills definition is not so clear. For example, consider selling skills. Some suggest they are soft skills, communicating with the customers. Others suggest they are hard skills, providing the features and benefits of a product or service.

Why are soft skills programs important for high-performing organizations?

Rebecca Ray: In our work at The Conference Board, we interview and survey top executives, and we see their concern about talent and human capital. Not far into these conversations, the focus on communications, leadership development, and team effectiveness surfaces. Major soft skills programs are critical to the success of the organization, and executives at the top usually understand that in theory but not always in practice. We want to make sure talent development professionals have tools and processes that demonstrate to executives that these investments deliver value. This book is our way to show that process.

Why should you measure the value of soft skill programs?

Rebecca Ray: Given the current cost-cutting efforts by most organizations, it is important to measure soft skill programs to protect their budgets. If executives see soft skills as delivering a positive ROI, they can quickly see that these programs are investments yielding a positive return rather than just direct costs and drains to the organization—a frequent misperception.

Program improvement is another major reason you should measure their value. Analysis can uncover where a program breaks down, and the data can then feed process improvement.

It is also important for maintaining good support for your programs and building good partnerships. Beyond budgets, you need support in the actions of many others, such as the managers of participants, division managers, operating managers, sponsors, and advisory groups to name a few.

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What is the ROI methodology you use in the book?

Patti Phillips: This book introduces the reader to the ROI Methodology, which collects and analyzes data at five levels of outcomes (reaction, learning, application, impact, and ROI). The methodology is a 12-step process to measure the success of soft skills and deliver success. These 12 steps start with “why”—that is “why are we conducting the soft skills program,” and involves a connection to a business measure. It ends with a step to optimize the results of the program. This involves making changes to make the program better and optimizing the ROI. This methodology follows a set of standards called Guiding Principles, which make it credible, efficient, conservative, and supported by users, professors, and researchers as well as top executives and chief financial officers.

Should all soft skills programs be measured at the impact and ROI levels?

Patti Phillips: Most programs should probably not be evaluated at this level. In our best practice advice, we suggest that a minimum of five to ten percent of programs should be pushed to the ROI level.

If the number goes much higher than 10 percent, it may create two problems. First, it consumes more resources that we might be willing to spend on evaluation. And second, we are probably evaluating programs at the ROI level which should not be evaluated at that level. For example, job-related training should be evaluated at Level 2 (Learning) or Level 3 (Application) and not Level 5 (ROI).

We recommend you select programs that are most important to the organization. The more expensive the program, the greater the need for evaluation at the ROI level. Also, the program may be connected to strategy, or important to solve an organizational problem, or necessary to take advantage of an important opportunity. If that is the case, maybe it is important enough to measure at these levels. Consider the cost of a program either on a per person or a total cost basis and use that as criteria.

Do you have advice for starting a program evaluation?

Rebecca Ray: Consider starting with a simple program evaluation before moving to a more complex program evaluation. Look at a program where you think the results are there already so that you can end up with a positive ROI on your first study. Although a negative ROI can be instructive, sometimes it is disappointing for the first ROI evaluation. Get started and move from one project to more projects until you can have the right mix to satisfy your audience.

How do you deal with a negative ROI?

Jack Phillips: You learn more from a negative ROI than you do from a positive ROI because a negative ROI forces you to understand what caused it. You will usually have data in front of you that tells you what happened. Use process improvement to make the program better for the next group of participants or the next program.

A negative ROI study is often necessary news because it shows us that what we thought was working is not. We can course correct and make it better. Sometimes the negative ROI doesn’t surprise the stakeholders closest to the program because they already felt the program wasn’t working. The negative ROI validates their perception. Take the proactive approach and do not wait for someone else to ask you for the value.

You can try to prevent the negative ROI, if possible, by designing the program to deliver impact and ROI. If the program is designed with the end in mind (impact and a positive ROI), there is a good chance that this will be the outcome.

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Are we making progress in evaluating soft skill programs?

Jack Phillips: We are making progress in evaluating soft skills programs and measuring ROI, although it is slower than we would prefer. Our benchmarking of ROI Methodology users shows that a larger percentage of programs are now pushed to the ROI level. We are also seeing examples of measurement for soft skills programs, not only at the impact level but ROI. This is all good news.

There are tremendous benefits when people finally step up to the challenge of measuring key programs at this level. In protecting budgets, they often have an easier path to more funding and other support. Even a negative ROI can mean positive outcomes for the organization and the individuals involved.

The book contains seven ROI case studies on a variety of soft skills evaluations conducted in the United States and other countries. They illustrate the success of other organizations in this area and speak to the progress that organizations are making.

Success doesn’t always require a positive ROI. Success means that the program evaluation helped the organization improve learning and development and improve effectiveness and efficiency. If a program delivers a negative ROI, as illustrated in one of the case studies in the book, it can still turn out to be positive for the organization.

About the Authors

Patti P. Phillips, PhD, CEO of ROI Institute, is a renowned leader in measurement and evaluation. Patti helps organizations implement the ROI Methodology in more than 70 countries around the world. Since 1997, she has been a driving force in the global adoption of the ROI Methodology and the use of measurement and evaluation to drive organizational change. Her work spans private, public, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organizations. Patti is a member of the board of trustees of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the International Federation of Training and Development Organizations. She is the chair of the Institute for Corporate Productivity People Analytics Board; principal research fellow for The Conference Board; board chair of the Center for Talent Reporting (CTR); and is an Association for Talent Development (ATD) Certification Institute CPTD fellow. Patti also serves on the faculty of the UN System Staff College in Turin, Italy. The Thinkers50 organization has recognized Patti and Jack Phillips as two of the Top 50 World Leaders in Coaching.

Jack J. Phillips, PhD, is a world-renowned expert on accountability, measurement, and evaluation and chairman of ROI Institute, through which he provides consulting services for Fortune 500 companies and workshops for major conference providers around the world. With more than 27 years of corporate experience in the aerospace, textiles, metals, construction materials, and banking industries. Jack has served as a training and development manager at two Fortune 500 firms, senior HR officer at two firms, president of a regional federal savings bank, and management professor at a major state university. He is also the author or editor of more than 100 books and more than 300 articles. His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Fortune magazine, among other outlets. He is the recipient of many awards, including ATD’s Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Development award, the Brand Personality Award from Asia Pacific Brands Foundation for his work as an international consultant, author, teacher, and speaker. The International Society for Performance Improvement gave him the prestigious Thomas F. Gilbert Award in 2018.

Rebecca L. Ray, PhD, is executive vice president, human capital, at The Conference Board. She is responsible for member engagement and retention as well as the quality and integration of all offerings across the human capital spectrum, including research, peer learning networks (councils), conferences, webcasts, and experiential and executive events. Previously, she was an executive at several leading organizations, including three Fortune 50 companies. She has been responsible for talent acquisition, learning and leadership development, employee engagement, performance management, executive assessment, coaching, and succession management. A contributor to Forbes, Rebecca is a frequent speaker at conferences and briefings around the world. Her research, commentary, and the accomplishments of her teams have been featured in the Financial Times, Fortune, and Wall Street Journal, among other major magazines and outlets. She was named chief learning officer of the year by Chief Learning Officer magazine and one of the top 100 people in leadership development by Leadership Excellence magazine.


About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit td.org/books.

Proving the Value of Soft Skills: Measuring Impact and Calculating ROI
ISBN: 9781950496631| 328 Pages | Paperback
td.org/books/proving-the-value-of-soft-skills

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Jack Phillips, Patti Phillips, or Rebecca Ray, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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