Peer-Reviewed Friday: Either/or edition

ResearchBlogging.org
AS in “hard skills” or “soft skills”

Or, to dig down a little deeper to another question — “teaching” or “training”

So, I have been working with a friend on a presentation building on some interviews we did with instruction librarians a couple of years ago.  Some of you might have participated.

(If you did – hi!)

We’re not talking about everything that was in those interviews, just a piece of them, and that piece wasn’t the main focus.  But talking to many instruction librarians got us thinking about the many ways that we frequently feel like we come up short in what we do — whether that’s because we’re not connected enough to the curriculum, or haven’t developed the relationships we feel we need with faculty, or because of the one-shot environment, or … you get the idea.

One thought that came up while we were doing the initial interviews, and that came rushing back as we reviewed them all over the last few months, was the concept of teaching itself and how it differs from other things — training, coaching, tutoring, and so on.  I’ve wondered off and on over the years why our discourse in instruction librarianship is so focused on teaching, with all of the associated metaphors and assumptions and baggage that come with that? And I wonder if part of why I do hear a lot of stress and anxiety (and joy and passion too) from instruction librarians can be traced back to situations where we are “teaching” but what we are doing doesn’t match on an identity level (when we self-identify as “teachers”).

So I’ve been looking at other literatures and today I want to talk about a 2011 article from Human Resource Development Quarterly.  It’s totally locked up behind a paywall, which is neither surprising nor awesome, but I want to figure out how it fits with my other thoughts – and I do that best through my fingers.  So I’m going to use it anyway:

Laker, D., & Powell, J. (2011). The differences between hard and soft skills and their relative impact on training transfer Human Resource Development Quarterly, 22 (1), 111-122 DOI: 10.1002/hrdq.20063

That’s some title, right?  Really sucks you in.

The article’s premise is that transfer of skills (from the training environment to the work environment) is the end goal of training  – and that one reason it works sometimes and doesn’t work other times is the content, or type of skill, being taught.

Let’s start with the first part of that premise – the idea that transfer is the goal.

…training transfer is defined as the extent to which what is learned in training is applied on the job and enhances job-related performance.

So, do we agree that that is really the goal of most library instruction?  I mean, obviously we need to substitute for “on the job” and “job-related performance” but at its heart, don’t we hope that what we teach in the library classroom can and will be applied in other environments — in the classroom, in the library, in the residence halls, etc.?

And when I said this, I am primarily thinking about those settings that aren’t the traditional credit class.   I’m picturing the one-shot, the desk encounter, or the workshop.

Taking that as an initial starting point, it seems like it is useful to look at what we know about why that doesn’t happen — in the training environment.

The research method in this article is a little squishy — it’s kind of like a review article, but not really systematic or formal in its method.  The authors mainly synthesize other research being done and their conclusions are drawn from that synthesis.  I’m okay with this because 1. it’s an approach designed to create a good article for a newbie to read and 2. because the claims being made are similarly soft — they aren’t claiming to draw any overwhelming conclusions, but instead hoping that to….

…serve in generating a discussion that the content of training, specifically the differences between soft- and hard-skills training, can have a significant impact on training transfer.

(n.b. I am not at all an expert in this literature so I really can’t evaluate the claim that this isn’t currently part of the discussion.)

The authors then summarize how these different skill types are defined in the literature:

  • Hard skills – “technical skills that involve working with equipment, data, software, etc.”
  • Soft skills – “intrapersonal skills such as one’s ability to manage oneself as well as interpersonal skills such as how one handles one’s interactions with others.”

(Remember, this is coming out of the field of human resource management)

So here’s where it gets interesting – well, to me.  Anyway, I went into this assuming that the typical one-shot, or Zotero workshop, or database walkthrough at the reference desk would fit into the “hard skills” category and that that is where I would find the utility in the article.

But that’s not what happened.

The basic argument of the paper is this – that training efforts designed to teach soft skills are much less likely to result in transfer than training focused on hard skills AND that one of the reasons for this are the differences between these types of skills.

(It seems obvious, but they also argue that these two parts of the training discourse are largely separate – that those who teach soft skills never teach hard skills and vice versa.  That makes all kinds of sense, so maybe this gap really is as wide as they suggest)

Anyway, they go through a long discussion of the differences between hard and soft skills and this is where I really saw the conenctions to library instruction — not in the discussion(s) of hard skills, but in the way they talked about soft skils.  Most of the reasons they suggested for why soft-skill-training doesn’t result in transfer match up clearly to reasons why instruction librarians are frustrated with the one-shot.

So let’s look at some of those reasons -

Prior learning and experience

Basically, this is the argument that when people come in to learn hard skills, it’s usually because they don’t know how to do something.  When they come into learn soft skills, they already have some ways of doing the thing being trained (talking to people from different cultures, keeping their temper… doing research?).  They’re supposed to be learning how to do it more instead of how to do it at all.  This means the trainer has to deal with baggage – with people who don’t think they need the training, or who have already-developed strategies that actually bad – that need to be re-learned.

Trainee Resistance

Obviously, the first factor is also a contributor to this one.  But the piece of this one that really jumped out at me was this –

…with technical training, learning typically decreases the anxiety and uncertainty involved in the performance of the task.

Seriously, right?  When we focus on finding sources, are we remotely dealing with the part of the “task” that is actually giving them the most anxiety?  Hmmmm….

Organizational Resistance to Transfer

Oh boy, this is a good one.  The argument here is that with soft skills (and remember, in this context these are mostly people skills) the organizational culture is actually at least partly responsible for why people have the skills they do now.  So training them to change is almost inherently going to bump up against those institutional realities.  So this might be talking about people skills but I think it also really describes a reality of library instruction – the research habits and assumptions they bring into the classroom are being shaped by the classes they’ve already taken, are taking, and may also clash with classes they are yet to take.

Managerial Support and Resistance

This one is actually my favorite.  Not because I think faculty who bring their classes to the library are usually disposed to resist, but its the way they described this that jumped out at me:

With soft skills, it is very likely that the trainee will look to the manager as a role model, as a coach, or for subsequent reinforcement.

I think this is totally going on with library instruction.  So many of our interview subjects talked about library sessions where they have a real, deep, partnership with the course instructor as their ideal for a “good day as a teacher.”  I think our students DO want mentorship and modeling from their faculty members — and I think they’re not getting it.  Not because the faculty member doesn’t want to provide support — they’re bringing the students to the library – that’s supportive!  No, because many of the faculty don’t see what they’re asking the students to do as being the same thing they do.  And it’s not.  And maybe that’s a problem.

Identification of Training Needs and Objectives

For many of our interviewees, the term “one-shot” connotes “trying to teach everything.”  That connects to this factor really closely – it’s basically the idea that it’s way harder to figure out what people don’t know when it comes to soft skills.  The next few items build this idea out more, but this quotation might also resonate:

With hard skills, the trainee is taught on a need-to-know basis, whereas with soft-skill training the trainee is usually taught on a good-to-know basis.

The Immediacy and Salience of Feedback and Consequences

The thing with hard skills is this – there’s usually just one way to do it, and if you don’t do step 1 right, you can’t do step 2.  So the feedback you get is immediate and very salient.  But neither of those things are true about soft skills.  So its really hard for people to get the kind of feedback they need to know if they’ve mastered them.

Degree of Similarity Between Training, Work and Work Environments

This is another really good one.  If you’re training someone to use a machine, it’s usually easy to really accurately mirror the work environment in the training environment.  If you’re training someone to do something that can happen in all kinds of places, sparked by all kinds of events, and follow all kinds of paths — how do you build an authentic training environment?  This quotation really jumped out at me:

Soft-skill trainers usually respond to this dilemma with one of two extremes.  Either they oversimplify the situation and thus lose realism, or they maintain the situation’s potential richness and in the process overwhelm the trainee.

Yikes. I can tell you for sure – we worry about this.  A lot.

So there are a few more factors, but these are the ones that felt really relevant to me and, let’s face it, this post is already epic.

But I think it’s important to think about this fact — the initial premise of this paper is that these are reasons why soft-skill training usually doesn’t work.  And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a training-like environment is how we in libraries are trying to teach things similarly complex a lot of the time.

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