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Do B-schools Equip Students With Soft Sills? NOT Fully

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Nearly 300,000 seats are offered by over 3,000 business schools in India. That makes it an awfully wide range of B-schools and an even wider range of students on which to generalise my observations. Whatever I say will not apply to some schools and some students.

Soft skills refer to personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism in relation to other people. This is also referred to as emotional quotient or EQ in a person. They say IQ gets you hired but EQ gets you promoted.

If we think that employers want the fresh hires from B-schools to have soft skills, then we have to build that assessment into the entrance examinations and also allocate time and resources in the curriculum to develop them.

The first step, the b-school entrance examination, mainly tests for analytical skills, number crunching and vocabulary. The test takers respond to this challenge by memorising a list of words and solving puzzles that are commonly used. Some schools assess soft skills through group discussions or panel interviews, but the admission decision is heavily driven by the written test. The current admission process does not test for soft skills as much as it does for analytical prowess. If b-school students need soft skills, then assess for that during entrance. 

Also, the current formal curricula put more weightage on giving functional knowledge such as marketing, finance, sales, etc. One could argue that the process of living and working with a diverse set of students builds soft skills. The curriculum of most B-schools is designed to get students to work in group assignments, present ideas and pick up skills of working with others to accomplish common tasks. But that is probably not enough to hone one's soft skills.

The bigger question to ask is: what is the best way to build one's soft skills? Soft skills have to be put in two broad buckets:

Interpersonal skills. These are skills that help us work with others. Some of these, like global etiquette, can be taught in a classroom. Others, like negotiation or conflict resolution, can be learned by watching others. But some skills, like motivating others, are difficult to teach in a classroom. These can, however, be learnt by reflecting on one's experiences, and honed through practice and feedback.

Most B-schools offer courses in communication skills. The assignments provide opportunities to students to present ideas to others. But communication skills involve knowing not just the language and its grammar, but how to use it keeping in mind the audience and the context. It is the latter element that takes years of practice and coaching to become skillful. People can be coached on how to present ideas to suit the audience, the occasion and the time available.

Many interpersonal skills can be learnt at least partly in the classroom. But to really sharpen them, it is important to be coached by experts. Designing "immersion experiences" for students to work on social entrepreneurship projects can build soft skills faster than any classroom course can.

Intrapersonal skills. Our response to stress, the energy level we display, our ability to trust others are some examples of intrapersonal skills. These are developed from early childhood experiences and are much more difficult to change. These take self-awareness and consistent effort over time to change. Intrapersonal skills have to be assessed during hiring because they are difficult to develop and train. B-schools that offer courses that build self-awareness are doing the best they can to impact these skills. Beyond this, it depends on the perseverance and resilience of the individual. By the way, perseverance and resilience are also part of the list of intrapersonal skills — hard to develop.

Taking a class on leadership skills does not make someone a leader. Neither does reading a book on dieting make someone thin. People hone their soft skills over a lifetime of practice and coaching. Some B-schools provide the theoretical base through subjects like organisational behaviour. Some invite industry experts to coach students. Working in groups leads to team building. But is there a way by which the students will come in as "finished products" that need no soft skills training? I do not think so. That is why organisations need to hold classes to develop soft skills of all their employees, and not just of fresh hires from B-schools.

Views expressed are personal

Click to read Devanath Tirupati's counterpoint

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-06-2012)