Soft skills vs. Domain knowledge

23FEB copyYour MBA program will give you an opportunity to develop both.

Soft skills and domain knowledge – which is more important?

Domain knowledge refers to hard skills or technical areas that you learn by investing your time in professional courses, degrees etc.  These are measurable and universal. You are not required to modify them with every new situation. On the other hand, soft skills refer to how you behave in everyday life. These relate to how people behave, communicate and listen to each other; how they engage, give feedback or cooperate as a team member in solving problems and resolving conflict. Given the nature of these skills, they are hard to quantify and measure. Interestingly, they need to be modified based on the situation.

The good news is that an MBA will provide an opportunity to learn both these skills. You will be equipped with the concepts that will strengthen your domain knowledge. At the same time, you will have several opportunities to interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds and cultures that will give you a chance to build your soft skills. The decision, however, to build these skills lies entirely with you. Many people fail in building soft skills because of their ego or superiority complex.These are the people who face difficulties in the corporate world at a later stage.

A corporate generally requires an equal balance of domain knowledge and soft skills. Gone are the  days, when your ‘core job’ was the essence. Today, your behaviour and ability to deal with people at the workplace is of prime importance. Thanks to the tough MBA program structures, they make us ready for real life situations.

During my MBA from 2008-2010, I encountered various situations where both my domain knowledge and soft skills were put to test. Five years have passed and my MBA learnings still help me with my everyday life. I am listing down five situations that you will definitely encounter during your MBA.

1. Appearing for group discussion and personal interview

Someone will immediately throw a stat during the group discussion. If you are not aware of that, you may feel terrible. Even if that is not a right number, there are chances that this person has already impressed the panel members as he has partially proved his domain in the field. What do you do now? This is the time to use your behavioural techniques (soft skills) to put things in your favour. There are two options – agree with him or challenge him. How do you do it? Assertiveness is the key here. Try to conclude this discussion with an assertive remark.

Similarly, at the time of a personal interview, the panel members will grill you for domain knowledge. For e.g. if your CV mentions that you are an expert in understanding the macro-economic environment of India;they might ask you the interrelation between interest rates and inflation. If by chance, you are not able to answer this question to the panel members’ expectations, you have reduced your selection probability. Therefore it is very important to selectively disclose your domain to them. You do not want to be in an embarrassing situation.

2. Working on group presentations and case studies

Most of the time, you are not lucky enough to choose your group members for a case study and presentation. I remember preparing a presentation on ‘Feasibility of townships in Mumbai’ where one of our group members wasa four year experienced person from the real estate industry. This person was both an asset as well as a bottleneck for our collective assignment. Although he brought some good valid points to the table for discussion, he continuously bullied the group members for the lack of knowledge on this subject.

The result was that nobody wanted to work on a collective assignment with this person again. This incident taught me the need to maintain a robust balance between knowledge and the art of dealing with people. Acceptance comes only when you are humble in your communication. People are not willing to work for nasty leaders.

3. Making presentations to a large audience

This is the time you have to be ready with all the details of your subject. Although delivering presentations in a good style definitely makes a difference, there will be classmates who will ask you random questions. You have to gather every minute detail, facts and references to support your argument. You must maintaina confident expression and tone.

4. Sharing a common accommodation

Your soft skills are always at test here. Even though your flatmates become very close friends over time, please remember they are not your family. You may be required to deal with complex situations on a daily basis. For instance, negotiating with your flatmate to pay the electricity or food bill can be tricky or telling them to switch off the television can result into an argument.

My recommendation would be to set the expectations very clear and lay ground rules of ‘operating at home’. These little things prepare you for a corporate career. You will see yourself applying these techniques (of course in a different context) at workplace while dealing with peers.

5. Appearing for your placement interview

The two years of your MBA life will equip you enough to crack this interview. As we know, this is the most important interview of the entire MBA program; you do not want to spoil this.  Remember that your CV clearly mentions your hard skills/domain knowledge. The hard skills mentioned on your CV can be less in number however they must be 100% relevant. On the verge of repeating myself, you must be ‘A-Z’ prepared for the skills mentioned in your resume.Avoid mentioning multiple skills as there are chances of falling into a cross-question trap.

Soft skills are also judged here. Remember to greet the panel with a smile. When you agree with them please nod; when you do not, be polite but confident. When you leave the room please tell them that you have learnt from them. It is not necessary that these things will guarantee your selection, but they will definitely leave a long lasting impact.

By now, you must have realised that both hard and soft skills are equally important to stay competitive in today’s dynamic environment. It is not ‘okay’ to have one of these. These skills are not substitutes of each other. They complement each other.  So, gear up and attain both!

Contributed by Virag Jain ( Class of 2010, IBS MUMBAI )

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