Can Studying Social Sciences and the Arts Help Technologists Close the ‘Soft Skills Gap’?

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Creative destruction is a relatively straightforward sociological concept: When something new is created, something else is often destroyed or displaced.

It’s a phenomenon that’s particularly important for engineers to grasp, as it goes hand in hand with innovation. Yet, many engineering students balk at the idea of a sociology or humanities class where such an idea is likely to be taught.

“A lot of engineers don’t make the connection between why they have to take [general] humanities courses and what they have to do with engineering. They seem to view them as a necessary evil,” says Dr. Kevin Jones, an engineering professor at the University of Florida (UF).

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In the modern workforce, however, it makes little sense to keep social concepts and technical knowledge siloed in rigid role distinctions. Leadership, communication, collaboration, and creative thinking skills are critical for today’s IT teams, who are no longer simply support staff but often the very beating heart of the modern enterprise.

Recognizing the importance of teaching students the practical and ethical application of their future work, Jones teamed up with nine other UF faculty members across the liberal arts and sciences to create an interdisciplinary course: “The Impact of Materials on Society” (IMOS). The vast majority of enrollees are engineering students.

“We wanted to create a class that would help [students] understand that engineering is inherently a social exercise,” says Jones. “Ultimately, you engineer for other people.”

Setting a Foundation in the Classroom

The IMOS course takes a modular format, examining a different material each week—aluminum, copper, plastic, steel, etc.—alongside a social idea like sustainability, entanglement, or creative destruction. Students complete problem-solving assignments that reconcile technical understanding of the materials with good business sense and ethical and social considerations.

“STEM majors really do need people who understand how trade wars work; they need people who understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value.”

—Dr. Kevin Jones, engineering professor, University of Florida

In one exercise, Jones splits the 200-student course into 50 four-person “companies,” and tasks them with designing an idea for a new product that incorporates a future material that may replace steel—magnesium, for example. The teams then have to apply the social principle of the week to the business plan.

One group’s “business” involved building photography drones for the film industry out of lightweight magnesium. As part of the assignment, the group had to consider factors like the jobs their invention might eliminate (helicopter pilots who work with filmmakers), and the ways in which professionals could be re-skilled to work with the new invention (teaching pilots how to operate the drones).

“Instead of just making a product and throwing it over a wall, [the students] realize that they are entangled with society. Once they recognize that, their product has a better chance of success,” says Jones.

The point of such assignments is to instill in students the social, political, humanitarian, and sustainability implications of any innovation they dream up. The approach also helps students learn how to view technical concepts through a business lens—students might, for instance, have to design an advertising campaign for their hypothetical product.

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The class has been so successful that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has encouraged Jones and his cohort to port it to more than a dozen other universities around the United States. It’s even getting international attention; IMOS modules have been introduced in Mexico, South America, Romania, Greece, England, and Southern Africa. This December, Jones will travel to Tanzania to lead a workshop on how the course should be taught for universities in Central Africa.

Breaking down the barriers between different disciplines has been part of the fun of building the course, says Jones. “STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] majors really do need people who understand how trade wars work; they need people who understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value,” he says. “I think if they can use [the IMOS] social toolbox going forward, they’re going to be inherently better engineers.”

IMOS is just one of a number of interdisciplinary programs that has surfaced in recent years, as more educators and human resource managers attempt to juggle the increasingly hybrid nature of tech-focused job descriptions. Stanford University, for instance, offers a joint BA/BS in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) that takes the IMOS ethos and applies it to an entire undergraduate major.

Hamilton College takes an inverted approach to blending technology and the humanities, infusing liberal arts research and courses with tech systems such as digital archives, virtual and augmented reality programs, and qualitative data analysis. The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) has been instrumental in these efforts; it’s behind nationally recognized projects such as the American Prison Writing Archive, which blends an inherently creative endeavor (literature and writing) with technology (an open-source, digitally enabled archive).

“One of the things that is really important that the humanities brings to interactions with technology is this sensitivity around the human condition.”

—Janet Oppedisano, director, Library and IT Services Academic Digital Initiatives

“One of the things that is really important that the humanities brings to interactions with technology is this sensitivity around the human condition,” says Janet Oppedisano, director of Library and IT Services Academic Digital Initiatives. “So, students working with technology and humanistic approaches are going to think first about the ethics around what they’re doing … There are tons of ethical questions that happen along the way, which have to be decided on a situational basis. So, students really get a sense of real-world dynamics and politics and issues.”

Bringing Soft Skills Into the Workplace

The interdisciplinary approach has implications far beyond the classroom. Today, jobs that were once purely the territory of technologists are now scrutinized through a decidedly more social, ethical, and business-focused lens.

“A lot of times in engineering, you work as an engineer for a couple years, and then you go right into management where you’re dealing with people and customers,” says Jones. “You quickly devolve from the calculus and chemistry to, ‘Do I understand how I’m dealing with people?'”

Dell Technologies’ Realizing 2030 research discusses the top five skills for the future workplace, which include soft skills like emotional intelligence and creative thinking—but it’s clear that mastery of these abilities is a challenge for many professionals. A recent Cisco report found that, when asked about the biggest challenges of hiring, training, and retraining talent to support transformation initiatives, 93 percent of respondents cited a talent gap as a core issue. A lack of business acumen outranked technical shortfalls as the biggest missing puzzle piece, 42 percent to 37 percent, respectively.

“We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations where each and every project has involved both technical and soft skills.”

—Brendan Ciecko, founder and CEO, Cuseum

Brendan Ciecko, the founder and CEO of Cuseum, a company that helps museums and public attractions engage visitors, members, and donors using technology, says he witnesses the “tech meets soft skills” conundrum all the time. His company has found a way to blend the two worlds using cross-team collaboration.

“We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations where each and every project has involved both technical and soft skills,” he says. “Effective communication, adaptability, and critical thinking are equally if not more important than technical abilities.”

In one case, Cuseum worked on a project with the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. The company’s technical team interfaced with a contemporary artist, as well as with curators and educators. “This involved cross-departmental teamwork, as well as ‘translating’ between each stakeholder,” says Ciecko. The end result was one of the world’s first museum exhibitions based solely on augmented reality (AR).

In a Wired forum focused on the future of work, Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, discussed the importance of soft skills for professionals working with emerging technologies like AR and AI. “As powerful as AI will ultimately become and is becoming, we’re still a ways away from computers being able to replicate and replace human interaction and human touch,” he said. “So, there’s a wonderful incentive for people to develop these skills, because those jobs are going to be more stable for a longer period of time.”

There are countless scenarios in which tech professionals might benefit from a business course on, say, strategic communication. Technologists developing cutting-edge AI products may be making incredible breakthroughs—but they may also need to communicate the value of their innovations in a business-savvy manner. Additionally, they may need to delegate responsibilities to other team members using leadership skills, or teach new hires the ropes via advanced management tactics.

There are a variety of continuing education courses targeted toward helping technologists master soft skills, even if they didn’t have such an opportunity in an undergraduate setting. Among these courses are Harvard Business School Online’s course on Leadership Principles, or PositivePsychology.com’s MasterClass in Emotional Intelligence (EI). Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms like Udemy and Coursera also offer a plethora of options for tech professionals seeking to hone soft skills like communication, listening, or critical thinking.

As technology professionals increasingly find their presence requested in boardrooms and at business lunches, their ability to master both technical matters and communication skills is becoming integral to future career growth. The bottom line? A blend of AI and EI just may be the IT skill set of the future.