Soft, Medium, Hard : Too many skills kill the skills

Posted on 08/09/2014

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Last week, an article in the Financial Times written by a French-American professor working in a French business school (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0d9b5672-df74-11e3-8842-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Chkkj2uj ) created some waves in the Grandes Ecoles microcosm with at least 2 articles in the French press (http://etudiant.lefigaro.fr/orientation/actus-et-conseils/detail/article/la-charge-du-financial-times-contre-les-grandes-ecoles-francaises-8574/ and http://www.atlantico.fr/decryptage/ft-en-prend-aux-grandes-ecoles-francaises-pour-deficit-formations-en-relations-humaines-mais-est-tellement-mieux-ailleurs-1740307.html ) and lots of rolling eyes in this usually hushed environment. Basically, the article says that French students from the elite business schools lack of soft skills such as agility and adaptability. They would be bright but not in the sense now asked by global companies operating in turbulent environments. This is not new but what is more interesting is that it is absolutely not specific to the French setting. Having worked in Asia, I can share with you that these same skills, plus ease of communication, creativity and entrepreneurship are also observed as lacking. And for the same reason, which has nothing much to do with what is taught at business schools: the school system BEFORE they enter into business programs. Both in France, with an average PISA score or in many Asian countries, with high PISA scores, students are taught to learn, memorise, analyse, synthesize, but not to be creative, outspoken, reactive or agile; some of these skills being by the way highly sought after for example in early careers in engineering or business. It is true that the US system for example, gives more space for these soft skills (see the success of the Montessori schools there or even the charters schools recently).

This issue, again not being new, has been tackled by most of the business schools in France and elsewhere. In the very own business school where the author of the Financial Times article works, there are many initiatives, from year 1 to develop the students’ talents and enhance their soft skills (I worked there for a few months so I have some ideas of what’s happening).

The elitism mentioned in the article is also not really specific to France. While it may appear more open, you still have a higher opportunity to get a great job if you graduated from Oxbridge or from one of the Ivy League universities (as mentioned in the Atlantico article referenced above).

Finally, I think that this view is biased as companies are never really fully satisfied by the skills of graduates. In Finance for example, they would like students with stronger skills in mathematics and statistics (hence the opening of more and more programs in Finance in engineering schools…). Thus, as a Dean, we often end up in situations where academics (and companies relations staff) in finance are asking for the acquisition by students of more competences in mathematics and finance, the ones in marketing asking for more competences in big data, the one in HR asking for more on leadership and the same would apply for entrepreneurship, foreign languages and the list could go on and on and on…

Due to the length of the studies and the budget considerations, schools have to make choices, mainly based on the trends and the needs of the companies, sometimes with the issue that by the time the students graduate, what was considered as an absolute need by companies 3 or 5 years has been replaced by another trendy “absolute need”…

That’s why it would indeed be interesting to “outsource” what are considered as basic skills such as communication, creativity, entrepreneurship,… to the secondary school system but we would face similar issues of time and budget. For the US, where students are considered to be better at these soft skills, the PISA average results for 2012 are lower than France in Mathematics… There is a limit to the number and depth of skills and competences that we can gain and this debate on which ones to get is just endless. That’s why there is what we call lifelong learning, which is certainly an area where France has to learn from the US.

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