Some companies claim technology has worked in this context, but many still rely on some component of face-to-face learning to develop and master certain soft skills.
On the other hand, even if learning technology isn’t a panacea for soft skill development, companies run the risk of being perceived as antiquated and inefficient if they rely too much on classroom and face-to-face learning.
Academics say the most important thing for learning leaders to keep in mind is context. Some soft skills may transfer well if taught through technology, while others require more of an in-person learning environment.
Ronald Riggio, a professor of leadership and organizational psychology and director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College, said public speaking is one skill where technology can play a large role and be effective. Watching videos of skilled speakers, for instance, can help the learner get a baseline for the ebb, flow and structure of giving a presentation or speech.
Still, “technology is limited in terms of how much we can develop, and it’s hard to give the kind of personal feedback and personal instruction that is often needed,” Riggio said. “To learn all of the subtleties of interpersonal communication, there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction, practice and feedback.”
To maintain its usefulness, Riggio said companies should incorporate as much technology as possible in soft skill development while critically assessing its effect through follow-up evaluations and learner surveys.
Technology-based soft skills training, however, may not be the best practice for companies facing a time constraint, said Bryan Austin, CEO of Game On Learning, a game-based learning company. Because most soft skill training requires reinforcement, companies with limited time might consider jumping straight to in-person training.
“Leadership skills, or any type of business skill, are really difficult to teach because of its complexity,” Austin said. “The way a lot of training attempts to teach those skills, they don’t allocate enough time for applying and mastering the skills.
“Learning and development professionals in the business world, both corporate and government, get tons of pressure from their internal clients to reduce formal training time. Managers want two-day classes shortened to one day, and one-day classes shortened to a half-day. Let’s be realistic — the acquisition, mastery and internalization of complex skills requires hours of practice in a safe environment, not minutes,” Austin said.
Therefore, for technology-based learning platforms to be worthwhile in developing soft skills, they must be tailored to an employee’s specific needs, including areas of weakness, said Thuy Sindell, founder and coaching practice leader at Skyline Group International, a human capital performance firm.
Understanding and identifying an employee’s needs allows a company to cultivate leaders at various levels through targeted applications of skills in technology-based programs. It also reduces the amount of time and energy spent in soft skills training by only focusing on areas of weakness.
“In the context of leadership development, it is exciting to consider a future where the best knowledge, tools and expertise is available to all employees — individual contributors, current and emerging leaders — without the barrier of exclusivity,” Sindell said.