Triumvirate of Skills For In-Demand Graduates

- Professor Galazhinskiy, one cannot fail to notice that over the last several years many new terms have occurred in the Russian discourse on higher professional education. Often they are derived from the English language and describe new technologies or professional competencies (skills). The question is: in your opinion, which skills are the most in-demand among Russian and international employers today?

- It will make more sense if we consider not separate skills (there are different skills in each professional area), but groups of skills that are accepted as proper ones by top managers of international companies. Some time ago, we had two major groups: hard skills and soft skills. The former are skills that are teachable or easy to quantify.  For example, the set of hard skills for a pilot includes taking off and landing a plane; for a musician, reading printed music; and for a programmer, knowing artificial programming languages. The latter skills allow people to succeed regardless what particular area they deal with.  Soft skills relate to the way people communicate or interact with other people: how well they can persuade, present themselves and their ideas, work in teams, take responsibility, remain flexible, and so on. In fact, in this case we talk about communication and management competencies. However, the total informatization and computerization we observe in all industrial and public spheres has resulted in coining a new term – digital skills, which is a third group of skills. 

- Do you think we can talk about a balance between those three types of skills? Or is there a dominant one?

- For a long time it was thought that hard skills were dominant. The whole system of higher professional education was aimed at developing hard skills. But at some point, researchers from Harvard and Stanford discovered that 75 to 85% of professional success depends on soft skills. The rest is connected with hard skills.

Жесткая правда о мягких навыках

From my point of view, we still may argue about the proportions and the nature of skills in different professions. For example, people of non-digital professions, such as doctors, lawyers, actors, and teachers, need some standard set of competencies as regular members of the modern network digital society. Those who belong to the “digital elite” need an absolutely different pack of digital skills. The same is true for soft skills: for some people (members of pedagogical or management communities) communication and management competencies are basic professional skills that belong to the set of hard skills. The best teachers are not those who have deep knowledge, but those who can share it, in other words, who possess outstanding communication skills.

Recognizing the importance of soft and, a little later, digital skills has changed dramatically the whole western system of education over the last 20 years. Most Russian universities are still oriented toward developing basic (hard) competencies, despite the fact that in modern post-industrial society, individuals and corporations mostly rely on soft and digital skills when achieving professional and business goals. This particular issue was communicated as the most sensitive one by Herman Gref at Sberbank’s press conference in January.

Пресс-конференция Германа Грефа

The shortage of highly qualified specialists with well developed soft and digital skills makes organizations look for their own ways of solving the problem. Sberbank in particular has opened its Corporate University. Another project they are carrying out is translating and publishing the most state-of-the-art books on financial technologies, management, and self-development.   

- How are Russian universities going to solve, or already are solving, this problem?

- First of all, it is necessary to accept that there is a problem. I have a feeling that not all the universities have realized it so far. We have accepted it and started working in several directions. First, we develop and launch new education programmes that go through accreditation at the potential employers’ organizations and are evaluated by international experts. Second, we invite recognized experts to conduct strategic sessions for our employees to plan educational, research, and innovation policies, as well as to create a model of our future graduate.   Third, we organize annual research and educational competitions for our staff to motivate them to follow current trends and to propose the most interesting and fresh ideas and projects that could help with developing different groups of skills. Fourth, we establish partner relationships with high-tech companies. For example, we have opened education and research centres with Mikran and Artlife.  TSU’s Institute of Economics and Management was established in collaboration with Sberbank.

Новый корпус ИЭМ ТГУ

- There is an opinion that a good manager can handle any type of organization. Is it also connected with the importance of soft skills?

- Such a miracle can take place when we talk about managing different organizations that belong to the same professional area. If we talk about organizations that operate in different spheres, one should not expect this miracle. Once, I participated in a very fierce argument at the meeting of the Labor Pool Council at Skolkovo. We discussed competencies that the Russian universities’ top management was supposed to take into consideration. My opponents argued that in order for a rector to work successfully, it is not necessary to be an academician. Being a good manager is enough. There were several cases that described situations when people with no education or research experience whatsoever were invited to restart the processes in crisis. And they succeeded.

My personal experience made me come to the opposite conclusions. The most capable rectors are always academicians. An academic degree is not just a formal indicator of their professional competence. It proves that a person went through certain stages of professional development and understands specifics of the research and education sphere. People from outside succeed in crises, when it is necessary to take anti-recessionary measures    without fear or favor. However, when a situation is stable, crisis managers are not as good as academicians.  That is why I insist on the idea that a manager is supposed to obtain basic skills in the first place, and then to be trained as a manager. 

-    How would you explain the phenomenon of Sergey Kiriyenko, who graduated from the Water Transport Engineers Institute and succeeded as the head of Rosatom, the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency?

- I would explain it the same way that Sergey Kiriyenko explained it himself. In order to obtain basic competencies in the sphere, he had to read multiple books on nuclear physics. This example proves me right. 

- You have already mentioned the press conference by Sberbank.  At the event, not only did Herman Gref encourage developing soft and digital skills, but he also talked about using blockchain and agile. It sounds a little scary for people who are not aware of the meanings.

Герман Греф

- Herman Gref is a true enthusiast when it comes to mastering new technologies. It leads to particular changes in the technological environment at the organization he manages. It explains why many experts consider Sberbank to be the leading Russian bank.   In this case, he talked about two technologies that have already conquered financial and digital worlds and now specialists from various spheres have started using them as well.

To keep it simple, blockchain is the world's leading software platform to keep digital assets. It is based on three principles: 1) distribution; 2) openness; and 3) protection. Experts compare it to the Internet. Those who are very optimistic believe that blockchains will change the world and make it data safe, because they do not allow committing financial crimes.

Agile is a new complex approach that contains various methods to develop software. Its major principles are interactivity (working in cross functional teams), adaptive short-term planning, interpersonal communication, and rapid changes.

Работа по принципу Аджайл

There is one more particular characteristic of this approach: members of a team exchange functions working on a project, so they are all, in a way, universal specialists. Let me emphasize that using blockchains refers to digital skills and using agile is connected with soft skills. We are witnessing how additional (soft) competencies evolve and result in changing basic (hard) skills.  Everything is inter connected!

- Herman Gref called agile “the beginning of human singularity”. What did he mean by that?

- Considering the fact that the term has multiple meanings in science, we may think of different ways to interpret his words. If we think about singularity as a moment in time when machines start working without any external support, then agile is a way to organize activity in such a manner that all the participants begin mastering their professional skills and going beyond their professional boundaries.  Using such flexible methodologies as agile, professionals become flexible. They can adjust to a continually changing environment.

Методология аджайл для организации процессов

- Does everything you said mean that we have found a universal way to prepare a specialist who may be hired by any modern company? By the “universal way” I mean the triumvirate of skills with embedded blockchains and agile techniques? 

- I do not know about “any company”, but I am sure about such companies as Sberbank. Today they welcome such professionals. The key word here is “today”. Because tomorrow they might need different specialists, just like any other leading company. I believe this is what Herman Gref was talking about when he said: “We collaborate with those who prepare for the future, which are universities”. That is why if universities are oriented only toward current requests of the labour market, they will fall behind in preparing in-demanded specialists. Moreover, universities are supposed to develop prospective models of graduates, interacting with employers and considering current and prospective trends. This is our strength and purpose!

The interview was conducted by Professor Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan