Boosting Productivity with Soft Skills

Productivity is a hot topic. In the UK, amid fears that weak productivity growth will harm the economy, Chancellor Philip Hammond has upped the national productivity investment fund to £31bn to help boost efficiency levels across the UK. “The productivity gap is well known, but shocking nonetheless,” Hammond said. “It takes a German worker four-days to produce what we make in five, which means, in turn, that too many British workers work longer hours for lower pay than their counterparts.”

The UK is not the only advanced economy suffering weak productivity growth – Reuters reported in early December that Canadian productivity fell in the third quarter, the second consecutive decline, as the number of hours worked grew faster than business output. Bucking the trend, the US productivity jumped three percent in third quarter, its best result in three years.

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The Training Shortfall

One possible explanation that has been mooted for poor productivity is weak training. This need not just relate to vocational training. In a fast-moving, increasingly globalised marketplace, soft skills, particularly those relating to language and communication skills, are increasingly important to enable colleagues to work together internationally and to communicate effectively with partners and customers across the globe. In fact, statistics show that a 1% rise in literacy skill scores can boost labour productivity by an estimated $225 billion per year.

As The European Commission has stated it wants to ensure schoolchildren within the EU learn two languages beyond their mother tongue, the British Council has turned its attention to the languages that British companies will need to do business after the UK leaves the European Union.

The British Council identifies Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German as the languages that UK schools should be focusing on now. It says, “International and intercultural awareness and skills are crucial for the UK’s success on the world stage, yes, but also in enabling the UK’s next generation to play a meaningful role in the global economy and in an increasingly networked world. The ability to communicate in more than one language is central to this. Speaking another language is not just about facilitating a basic transaction; it deepens cultural understanding and opens doors to international experience and opportunity.” Different cultures have different business etiquette and diverse interpretations of body language and eye contact. Employees in a global workforce need to have high levels of cultural understanding as well as language skills.

We know that learning professionals in multinational organisations recognise the importance of language learning delivery that is consistent across the globe. It is now time to take that to the next level and ensure that language learning is closely and explicitly aligned with the organisation’s strategy. It is more important than ever to put in place effective measurement and ensure that training delivery is working for the organisation. This is not just about collecting statistics relating to completion rates of e-learning modules, for example. There might be an improvement in employee engagement statistics, increased retention and decreased recruitment costs. Enhanced customer service metrics or faster time to market might also be good indicators that learning delivery is helping meet strategic goals.

The Issue of Motivation

Motivating employees, and future employees remains a major issue. Pippa Morgan, CBI head of education and skills policy, says: “We need to find ways to encourage more students to take up modern languages by showing just how useful it can be to their careers.” Businesses have work to do in ensuring that employees know exactly why they need to acquire language and communication skills and in delivering the digital learning that will help them to do so. There is no doubt that the key for organisations looking to boost their productivity is to effectively engage employees with the idea that improving their language and communication skills will both enhance their careers and give them a real stake in a business that has the high levels of productivity that will drive success.