“Soft Skills” – What are they really?

Peter B. Williams | Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy

Reflections on a reoccurring theme at the National Forum on Landscape Conservation

This past November I joined more than 200 landscape conservation practitioners at the 2017 National Forum on Landscape Conservation. I and others were struck by how often the conversation returned to the theme of what was often called “soft skills.” What emerged in the two days of the Forum was that perhaps these skills are so central and absolutely critical to the practice of landscape conservation that thinking about them as “soft” is less than helpful. All of this got me asking, when we use the term “soft skills,” what do we mean? And, perhaps even more to the point, what skills might we place in that bucket?

In many ways, the concept of “soft skills” is a likely extension of the somewhat dated distinction between hard and soft sciences. Often, “hard” sciences would include the natural sciences, like biology, geology, ecology, or physics. “Soft” sciences typically would include the social sciences, like sociology, economics, political science, or anthropology. But the discussion during the Forum often seemed to include skills and expertise beyond sociology, economics, or anthropology. For that reason, perhaps a different framing might help us talk about “soft” skills.

When I think about skills needed for landscape conservation, I often use a conceptual framework that focuses on process, content, and outcome. What I like about this framework is it focuses on the three dimensions of a decision and, arguably, conservation fundamentally is about making decisions. Every decision has a process that involves information or content and leads to outcomes. For conservation, this framework avoids the slippery slope of thinking about some skills as soft, which can create or reflect biases or conceptual anchors that can get in the way.

Thinking about these three dimensions from a skills perspective can be useful. At the risk of over- simplifying, process skills are those that help people work together, like planning, decision-making, community building, facilitation, collaboration, and even mediation, just to name a few. Content skills are those that gather, analyze, interpret, and present information. Examples might include monitoring of social, biological, or ecological conditions; GIS skills to integrate or analyze data about those conditions; and even technical writing skills. Outcome skills are those related to implementation or evaluation, to learning about whether the decision worked as intended. In this sense, outcome skills might include those needed to do the work on the ground or to monitor the results of that work.

Taking a step back to look at process skills, the Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy has developed courses for the past 10 years around a core set of 22 competencies. There are five main categories or groupings: partnering, community collaboration, strategic thinking, partnership management, and accountability. These are very similar to skills trainings established by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM). There is a tremendous amount of material dedicated to teaching and growing these skills and competencies, something we could look at more closely in the future.

So, as I think back to the National Forum and the phrase “soft skills,” my sense is we might consider framing future conversations around “process” skills because that might reflect the thinking better and avoid anchoring the discussion conceptually in hard vs. soft. In my career, for example, I’ve focused on collaboration and conflict resolution, strategic planning and decision-making, and even capacity- building, coaching, and community building, at least in one form or another. I’ve even been involved in morale building work, another entire set of skills not even mentioned yet.

My sense is these process skills are very important to the work of landscape conservation and we just haven’t yet as a field given them enough intentional, explicit attention. If the National Forum is any

indication, though, that is changing. Perhaps the most exciting thing is that we already have existing expertise for us to draw upon and established opportunities for training and skill-building.

Because it can be so helpful to look for gaps in my own thinking, let me close with a question: if you think of conservation as a long-term journey, are there particular skills that come to your mind as needed that haven’t been mentioned here?


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“Soft Skills” – What are they really?