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The skills of the future are smart and sharp!

“What are the skills of the future? Whatever that future is?”

This is a question in everyone’s mind: career professionals, employers, students and graduates, academic and practitioners. What “soft” skills should we work on and what “hard” skills should we invest in? But what if the skills of the future are not “soft and hard” but rather “smart and sharp”? Here is the simple premise of this article: a new semantical approach and an articulation of their critical co-existence in action!

Soft and Hard skills – 1972

We are all familiar with the concepts of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills but do you know their semantical history? The soft and hard skill terminology was coined in 1972 by a research team in the U.S. Army to differentiate people who were good at machine operations, coining these skills “hard”, from those who did well in people related, supervision roles, coining them as “soft skills”. And since 1972, this ubiquitous terminology has served us well.

But just like all other fields of study who get to constantly revise critical concepts, we believe that this terminology needs a fresh, new approach.  As a business school professor and a leader, I am faced every day with situations where I see either our Asia School of Business students, staff or action learning partners being faced with difficult situations: giving and receiving feedback, managing complex stakeholders, dealing with office politics, and I always wondered “What’s soft about it?”

Dictionaries define the word “soft” with words like smooth, mild, gentle, quiet, tender, and weak. Navigating competing perspectives and cultures does not come smoothly; pitching and presenting projects is not a tender act; handling and delivering critical feedback often is not mild; and dealing with office politics is certainly not for the weak. So why do we still refer to these skills as soft?

In a similarly fashion, calling accounting or learning pivot tables on Excel, ‘hard’ will just petrify people before they can even learn it. Dictionaries define the word “hard” with words like firm, rigid, resistant, free of weakness, unlikely to change, harsh, severe. But should the so-called “hard” skills required today—such as coding, system dynamics, finance, accounting, statistics, machine learning, engineering—be defined by these attributes?

Considering the constant changes in technology, and the subsequent need for users to adapt, these characteristics hardly seem fitting. And that’s why, at ASB, I have decided that is time for a semantical update and together with MIT Sloan Professor and ASB Dean and President, Charlie Fine, we are proposing two new concepts “Smart Skills” (replacing soft) and “Sharp Skills” (replacing hard) and a new interpretation of how we should think of these skills in action.

Smart and Sharp! Is this just a matter of semantics?

You are probably asking yourself now “Does it matter how we name the skills, as long as we have them?” In an attempt to answer this question, allow me to share a quote from UC San Diego Prof. Lera Boroditsky, a leading cognitive scientist in the fields of language and cognition and former faculty at MIT.

“By choosing how you frame and talk about something, you are causing others to think about it in a specific way. We can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.”

Think about this. Narratives are created over time; a few years back, catfish was only a fish but in today’s verbiage, it has a whole new meaning. We assign new meanings to words every time we speak in a particular context and hence, Charlie and I believe that both these skill sets i.e., smart and sharp, need to be looked at in light of the roles that each play in our day to day lives.

“The job is easy, the people are not!”

This is the most important lesson I have learnt from one of my colleagues, Prof. Nancy Waldron, Lasell College. But the second most important lesson I have learnt is that I am people! And so are you and the person next to you. Humans are complex algorithms: think computers but with mood swings, hunger pangs, and plenty of ego that need constant validation; therefore the need for smart skills to “augment our own humanity” such as becoming cognitively ready, develop our adaptability and humility, learn to listen and to follow, and so much more.

Same goes for “sharp skills”. We need to constantly learn how to optimize business solutions using science based management, data analytics and analytical reasoning, we have to become digitally literate and employ system dynamic thinking. And we cannot say, once you have learnt these skills, you are done. These skills need constant updating, they need to be sharpen at all times!

“Smart skills are co-developed with other humans, and sharp skills are co-developed with computers.” ASB Professors Willem Smit and Shien Jin

At ASB, we want to teach both practical and theoretical applications of these skills. Further, we want our students to be able to blend smart and sharp skills so they are effective in their work organizations. While teaching “sharp” skills in the classroom is doable, can one teach “smart” skills such flexibility, willingness to learn, innovation, open mindedness?

At ASB we believe that we can! How? Action Learning!

Blending Smart and Sharp through Action Learning!

One of my roles at ASB is to run our award-winning Action Learning Program, during which, our global students work with companies from all over SE Asia and beyond to solve various business challenges. When we designed our learning experience at ASB, Charlie Fine had the vision to build a transformative curriculum that activates and combines at all times the smart and sharp skills together in order to produce the market ready and principled leaders that our mission promises!

During each of the 5 semesters of the almost 2-year MBA, we send our students to work with various projects all across SE Asia and beyond, to address business challenges that our ASB business partners face: marketing, operations or finance but in this process, they also learn how to become culturally sensitive, to become emotionally mature, to be both humble and confident, and so much more.

How do we do it? Not only that we place these global students in diverse student teams, which is a given, but we send them to work with these companies 2 to 3 times each term. A very expensive and controversial decision, but one that truly articulates the smart and sharp skills in action.

Why do I say this with so much confidence? Because it works! Maybe the first time you go on site in a remote corner of the Philippines to formulate an integer programming model for scheduling a food processing factory, and teaching the plant staff how to use the model they developed, you think wow, this is a big challenge!

What we actually learnt from observing and supporting our students over the past 4 years, is that the first onsite experiences are all about smart skills: knowing when to listen and when to speak, keeping your ego in check, accepting that you are no longer the smartest person in the room, balancing your emotions when you had a 12h day that is still not over. Believe me when I say, that the programming model looks a lot easier in comparison.

And like one of our MBA alumni, Jack Farrell, said, “Learning how to navigate business challenges and cultural ambiguities is one of the biggest takeaways from my action learning projects. I say we are the ‘Real-World MBA’ operating in the most dynamic region around the globe.”

By the second time you go onsite, you might recognize some of the patterns not just in yourself but in your team mates and stakeholders, you have probably received some painful feedback in your 360-peer evaluation and you are a lot more introspective.

And by doing this over and over again, each semester for at least a couple of times, you learn about highly diverse cultures, you start to see various political and strategic perspectives, and you get exciting opportunities to test your growing smart and sharp skills in various industries, companies, and positions before graduation. This is our recipe to develop principled, transformative and market ready leaders: smart and sharp in action!

At Asia School of Business we are just at the beginning of our journey and we have so much more to learn. But we confidently believe that the latest generation of management students and practitioners need a full suite of smart skills to navigate the complex organizations and ecosystems that drive today’s economy, as well as sharp faculties for cutting-edge analysis of complex systems.

So, let’s get smart and sharp at ASB!


The author Prof. Loredana Padurean would like to extend special thanks to her co-author Prof. Charles Fine, and recognize the editorial contribution of ASB MBA student Devika Manoj Made, ASB Professors Prof. Willem Smit, and Prof. Shien Jin and Ms. Iwona Fluda, Founder and CEO Creative Switzerland for their feedback.

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