One of the hottest topics in business today is upskilling, reskilling, and redefining jobs for the future of work. But what’s actually needed in today’s workplaces is real “skilling” that takes a deep focus on the end-to-end capabilities all employees need to succeed in a rapidly transforming marketplace.

Recently Mursion CEO Mark Atkinson sat down with global research analyst, public speaker, and advisor Josh Bersin to discuss hard vs. soft (or power) skills; why practice is so important for the acquisition, retention, and mastery of new skills; and how to design and implement impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that enact true change in organizations. Below is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

Watch the Discussion

Mark Atkinson: You’ve been writing about the topic of New Skills Culture for a while now and thinking about it quite deeply. Just to frame the urgency of this, in your newsletter just a few weeks ago, you wrote one of the hottest topics in business today is upskilling, reskilling, and redefining jobs for the future of work. It’s so rampant that 34 percent of CEOs now rate it one of their top three threats to growth. What’s going on out there? What’s causing this? What the new urgency around these skills?

Josh Bersin: Well, the word “skills” is a very big, complicated, vague word, but to try to put some sense on it, I think there are two big business issues that we face in HR and in companies in general. One is the technical and professional skills that your company needs to stay ahead. 

Every company has this weird thing that came up in the last four or five years that is completely disruptive and new, and it’s adjacent to the business they’re in, but it’s different. There’s this issue of building and acquiring and developing these skills that you don’t know a lot about. The second problem is the soft skills problem, which we’re going to talk more about.

In my experience, I got into HR and L&D around 1999. At that point in time soft skills was the stepsister or stepbrother of hard skills. In other words the reason we called them soft was we figured that they’re squishy. They’re not that important. They’re not hard-edged, but the reality of course is that’s not true. It’s actually the opposite. It’s the soft skills that are hard and really take a long time to develop.

If you’re working in leadership development, you realize how complicated the world of soft skills is. The reason it’s complicated is because it goes back to the psychology of work, which has been studied since Sigmund Freud and the early Myers Briggs type of stuff. We don’t really know the psychology of work very well. We’re learning it all the time and every time we changed the job and the technology, we changed the psychology of it.

Today, everybody’s talking about that stuff, because what we’ve discovered and this is not really a new discovery, is that if people don’t feel comfortable, supported, inspired, safe at work, we don’t really have a company. The pandemic pretty much proved that. My journey through this started in a fairly tactical view of hard skills versus soft skills, and now I’ve really come to understand that these power skills as I call them, are the most important things that drive you in your career.

If you look at the research now on what people want to learn, young people are more interested in these power skills than they are in the technical skills, because they feel comfortable learning the technical skills on the job, but they don’t know that they’re going to learn these other things. 

Mark: You also have a great line that references the pivot in thinking that CHROs need to have with respect to the approach to the development of those power skills. You wrote, “It’s a big and complex topic and one that I often feel is out of control. Companies are buying vast libraries of content in an attempt to re-skill their workforce, and they’re seeing mixed results. They buy learning experience platforms in large libraries of content and cross their fingers.” Talk to us about what do you think needs to be different in terms of the approach you take to these skills.

Josh: A lot of companies take this very seriously and a lot of companies are really good at it, but there’s a maturity to understanding the need to build supervisory management and teamwork skills. The bigger companies that have been around for a while have gone down this learning curve, but a lot of younger companies just haven’t dealt with it yet. The naïve or simplistic approach to this is, “Oh you’re a manager. We’re going to send you to the AMA course in supervisory skills and when you come back, you can be good at your job.”

You go to a weeklong course, in some school somewhere, and you come back and you’re supposed to learn how to be a leader. We know that’s a ridiculous idea. It’s the beginning of your journey into leadership, but these are things you learn your entire life. You’re always getting better at them.

There are all of these strange situations that happen in the workplace, problems with employees, problems with customers, problems with the strategy, companies under stress because they’re underperforming or they’re over-performing and things are going so fast, people can’t keep up. Evolved or mature or sophisticated companies have learned this, and they know that these are not skills you learn by taking a one-hour video course or going to an AMA course or even going to Harvard Business school for three days.

It’s mostly an experience to meet other people and open your mind to things you haven’t thought about, but you don’t bring that many skills back with you, because, as you guys know in your platform, you learn these power skills by doing them. It’s like being a parent. Nobody really knows how hard it’s going to be a parent until you’ve been a parent and you get better at it.

Mark: I think that’s an excellent metaphor. It leads me into two things I’d love to get your take on. One is the role of practice generally in learning and the relevance of practice and maybe even repetition of practice to these skills and then something we care deeply about and have thought a lot about and I know you have, too, but the psychological safety that’s needed to fail, and to fail and to be able to practice and fail so that you can learn. Could you talk a little bit about both practice and failure?

Josh: This is the secret sauce that you guys have, actually, that we’ll talk about later. I think most of us know that you really don’t learn how to do anything until you practice. If you look at the research on this, there’s an interesting study called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

These were a bunch of people who studied the discipline of medicine and anatomy. You know doctors have to know a lot of stuff about your body and there’s all sorts of situations that are new every time they have a patient, and so they studied medical education, and what would work to get doctors to remember what they had to do or what they needed to know. What they discovered was that repeated self-study did not work. You could go back to the same thing and read it over and over again, and the curve went down, people still forgot it.

Then they tried context. Let’s give them a lot of repetition with a model or some sort of a framework so they can fit in it, and that helped a little bit. Then they said, “Let’s try practice. Let’s do learning, framework, repetition, and practice.” The retention rates shot up. It’s astounding how much more you remember when you’ve done something. I think most of us know this. There’s something that goes on in your mind that when you actually experience something, you don’t forget it.

I remember this with Mursion. when I went through VR stuff, there’s something about being in the real situation, feeling a little bit nervous, or maybe exposed or vulnerable. You don’t forget that, and it comes back to you later, and that’s really some of the secret that you guys have discovered in your platform.

The issue of psychological safety is, if you’ve gone through a class where you have to do a simulation and you have to stand up in front of the audience, it’s nerve-racking. It’s very uncomfortable, and you’re probably not going to be completely honest and genuine. If there’s a way to create that experiential learning in soft skills and power skills in a safe way, you’re going to learn a lot and that’s the secret of Mursion. Getting to know you guys, this is sort of the secret sauce that you guys have created, is this psychological safe place to learn through experience and in a vulnerable way so you remember it.

Mark: You’ve been giving a lot of thought to where this concept of practice fits in the overall learning experience. I know, you talk to everybody who’s doing all aspects of learning and development, both on the technical side and the instructional design side. Say more about where it fits in and your view.

Josh: There are four aspects or dimensions to the continuum of power skills learning. The first is the classroom-based instruction or educational-oriented approach where you go to a class.

Many good things about that, you meet other people, you go out of the workforce so you have time. You might go to a new physical location so you will remember that. If you do go to Harvard University and take a course, you’re going to remember that. It’s going to recollect in your mind. You might have some inspirational speakers and so forth. That’s the old model that’s been around forever. It’s very expensive. It’s very difficult to do during the pandemic. Only senior people tend to go to those things and you forget a lot of it, but you remember the experience.

The second approach to power skills is almost the complete opposite of that. You take a 360, you get some surprisingly disappointing results. If you’ve ever taken a 360, you’ll definitely feel bad about it. Somebody will say something that will really hurt, but that’s part of the learning experience, then you have a coach or a mentor. You have some sort of a discussion about what it is that’s going on and that could make you better at your job.

Those types of activities are usually reserved for people who have problems. This coaching-based learning is becoming much more democratized. There’s a whole bunch of vendors selling AI-enabled coaching platforms so you can find a coach and then get assessed and advance, so that’s the second model.

The third model is where you guys fit, which is simulation and experiential learning using technology. When I was a young guy at IBM, in my early career, I had to go to sales training and do simulated sales calls in front of a group of people and they graded me. That was the old way of doing it. The new way is you use Mursion or you use a VR system and you actually experience a situation, and you react to it, and you get a lot of muscle memory and mind memory from it.

Then the fourth model that’s just beginning, but I think it has a lot of potential, is this idea of AI-enabled nudges, suggestions, microlearning. 

I think you guys are really an interesting, important player in that area of simulation and experiential learning, and I think we’ll talk about the avatar approach to this, which is very interesting to the impact of that.

Mark: The research on avatars, as you know, is fascinating. The folks at Stanford, who run the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, have shown that through a ton of studies that people tend to be willing to reveal more things about themselves when they have the veil of a digital character to interact with and that it actually does afford this kind of psychological safety for failure in practice that we’re both talking about.

In an earlier conversation, you said a fascinating thing to me. I was asking you about organizations that epitomize the commitment to practice that we ought to see, and you’ve had an unusual answer as to where it’s done best. 

Josh: I think you’re talking about the military. I think we can learn a lot from the military and business about leadership, about management, about delegation, about empowerment, about practice, about mission-critical stuff. In the military, if you don’t do your job right, you break something really expensive, you hurt somebody, or somebody gets killed, so there’s no tolerance for, “I didn’t really understand how that worked.”

That applies to humans, your human job, too. If we can give people ways and time to constantly burnish their human skills and their relationship skills, we can take advantage of the same discipline that the military uses. 

Mark: You shared another quote with me that I think emphasizes this. “An amateur practices until they can do a thing right. A professional practices until he can’t do it wrong.” I think in a way to connect the dots here, your concept about the military and the need for constant practice for a state of readiness, because you never know when you’re going to be facing the crisis that calls you to action, but there’s a risk avoidance element to some of these human skills, as well.

Obviously, I think there’s a generative piece of it, which is that the more we develop empathy, understanding, communication skills, we are more creative, we’re more innovative, we get the best idea on the table, people want to stay in our organizations. Those are all day-to-day returns, but there’s a risk avoidance thing, as well. Sometimes these conversations are the conversations where your emotions get the better of you and you say something terrible to a client or an employee that loses a deal or a customer. Talk more about that aspect of it, as well.

Josh: The older I get, the more I realize that one of the most important skills is humility. Some people are born with it, some people have to learn it, some people never really are very good at it. These are, like I said, like parenting. These are skills that most people constantly need to learn. I suppose there probably are people who are just born great leaders, and they just know how to do it from early in life, but that’s the rare person. 

I think a lot of the characteristics of great leaders and great leadership development is this sense of humility that no matter how good you think you are at whatever it is you do, you can always get better at it. You can always improve and help other people learn what you know. I’ve also learned in my career, sometimes it’s better to listen and not jump to action and use every situation at work as a learning experience.

It’s almost like every meeting you’re in, every dialogue with a client, every sales call, whatever it may be, if you’re paying attention, you’re learning something. People react very positively to that. When people sense that you’re listening and you’re paying attention to them, they pay attention to you. It’s actually also a skill of building relationships. 

Mark: It’s a fascinating topic, and it leads me to a topic that’s been certainly at the forefront of our work. It’s the forefront of the news, and you’ve been writing about it. We are, I think, experiencing a rapid acceleration around the need for cultural change at work, as well. The conversations that every organization wants to be going on around diversity, equity, and inclusion couldn’t be more at the center of the mission of the folks we’re running into in the world today.

There’s no way to start those conversations but from a standpoint of humility. I am curious, your take on how this is playing out, what it means for the future of work and organizational development and again some of these same power skills that you’ve written so eloquently about.

Josh: I think in many ways, this is the silver lining of the pandemic. There’s been so much stress in organizations, and CEOs in particular, and business leaders have realized how difficult it is to execute well when people are not feeling comfortable, when they don’t feel like they belong, when they don’t feel safe. They’re now looking at a lot of these issues of psychological safety and inclusion and belonging in a business context.

I think the problem with the DEI, you can’t push diversity into the company by just hiring minorities and assuming your problem is solved. That is actually not the answer. The real solution, if you look at really highly diverse, highly inclusive companies, they have a sense of trust of people.

They create a feeling of belonging by not just having equitable HR practices, but truly believing that everybody and anybody is capable of performing, regardless of their age, their gender, their nationality, their race, whatever. They bring that idea of trusting people to all aspects of the company, to their supply chain, to their customers, to their employees, to their leadership. Then they do diversity work to get more people to become aware of that company and to join that company. The inclusion process creates more diversity. I’ve always felt that inclusion creates diversity, not the other way around.

The second thing about diversity that we learned from that research is diversity is not an HR problem, it’s a business problem. You can have a DEI person in HR lead it, it’s a very difficult job, but you have to think about the diversity of where you sell your products, who you sell them to, where your locations are, who you do business in your supply chain. If you think about this inclusive idea across your whole company, all of a sudden your company is bigger, you have a bigger market.

It’s a more expansive way to think about business in general. I think there’s a lot of important lessons there. The kind of stuff you guys do is really critical too, because Mursion experiences will teach you about bias that you’re not even aware of. Situational and simulation learning is a big tool for belonging and diversity.

The Future of Work Is Now

We’re passionate about how human-powered AI can help professionals perform better in the real world.  And, to experience Mursion’s simulations for essential skills training and see for yourself how this platform can support your own business and foster a culture of learning, schedule a demo today.

by Wendy

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