Categorizing Skills: More Than Just Semantics

In the Learning & development team at Spotify our preferred way of categorizing skills is by dividing them into durable and perishable skills. This is a different way of categorizing skills compared to the most common naming of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills. And it’s not just semantics!

Soft skills are usually described as those interpersonal skills, or non-measurable and general skills that are connected to how you do your job, ex; communication, collaboration and leadership. Hard skills are defined as the skills that are measurable, easy to quantify and job-specific, ex; learning a language, coding, writing, marketing skills.

Why you shouldn’t use ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ skills

There are a few problems with this categorization. Calling skills soft or hard has a built in bias. Soft gives the impression that the skill is soft as in weak or fuzzy, versus the hard skill being strong, clear and indisputable. It can also be hard to actually agree on what skills fit into the hard vs soft category.

To solve the categorization problem, L&D professionals have tried to introduce namings such as ‘smart’ or ‘power’ skills to remove the potential bias and ‘upgrade’ the importance of the soft skills by calling them smart skills or power skills. The question remains though, what is a smart or power skill vs a hard skill?

For example, would you call leadership skills soft or hard? Most people’s initial reaction would be to describe leadership skills as soft – there’s a huge focus on communication, collaboration, influencing – all the things that fit into interpersonal skills are defined as soft skills. However, let’s take a fresh look at leadership skills. Good leaders are experts in their roles and can expertly handle a wide-array of situations such as organizational transformations, difficult conversations, lay-offs, and disciplinary actions. Not so soft when you come to think of it. Pretty damn hard actually.

There is room for so much interpretation and evaluation.

‘Durable’ and ‘Perishable’ Skills

At Spotify, rather than calling skills ‘soft’ or ‘hard’, ‘smart’ or ‘power’, we prefer to categorize skills into ‘durable’ and ‘perishable’ skills as mentioned before. Using these names removes the implicit bias and reduces the fuzzy line or question marks of which category a skill belongs to. And it takes into account the longevity of different skills.

The terms durable and perishable are more commonly used within economics in the context of durable or non-durable/perishable goods – meaning goods that are either not wearing out immediately vs the opposite, goods that are immediately consumed or have a short life span.

This shift in mindset whereby we categorize by the longevity of the skills, helps with being able to bring a dynamic approach to upskilling your workforce. There is a dramatic shortening of the shelf life of certain skills nowadays with the speed of change and the exponentially expanding technology, so understanding a skill’s longevity is important. 

As explained by Guild Education; Perishable skills are skills with a half-life of less than two and a half years. These can be tech skills, such as knowledge of a certain platform, programming languages, or policies and tools that shift frequently.

Durable skills are skills that are transferable and not connected to a specific job, they have a half-life of more than seven and a half years. These are skills that can be applied throughout a career, such as project management and meta skills like learning how to learn, leadership etc.

And in between there are semi-durable skills with a half-life of somewhere in between two and a half and seven and a half years. These skills are often connected to frameworks and processes that are stable for some years but will eventually be renewed or replaced.

Balancing Skills Development

At Spotify, we strive to find the perfect balancing act of the types of skills that we develop within the organization. The right mix of durable, semi-durable and perishable skills. We work on the perishable skills which are often in immediate demand and can change frequently. And of course we also put a lot of focus on the durable skills, which will benefit both Spotify and individual band members in the long-term. 

In today’s landscape of constant change and the need for upskilling and reskilling at a faster pace, we have to learn faster than the world is changing. Constant training, learning and development is necessary (and exciting!). It fuels innovation and helps the business stay relevant and deliver on its vision. And what’s more, finding the perfect balance of short-term and long-term means helping our band members to maintain their employability.

So, as always, we recommend some fresh thinking and challenging the fixed mindset. Not just for semantics sake or for following the latest trend, but so that you can choose an approach that works best for your business and your people. Don’t just follow the herd, but do take a stance and make the categorization much more meaningful.

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