The ideal soldier knows how to strip a weapon with ease. The ideal soldier knows how to do flawless drill and never wobbles when conducting an about turn. The ideal soldier knows how to give and react to orders without a second thought. These skills were shown, taught and developed over months of strict discipline and training in order to create the ideal soldier.
These are all skills integral to the daily functioning of an ideal solider. But what about those skills we don’t see but are so equally vital to this functioning?
In Army non-technical skills are known as non-trade skills, but given that we are all soldiers first before our respective trades; this definition can be skewed. In the world of applied psychology, non-technical skills can be considered as anything performed that is considered vital to the task functioning, but not clearly defined as a taught skill set.(1) According to TAFE Queensland, non-technical skills, sometimes referred to as ‘soft skills’, are things that everyone does every day; skills that are intertwined with other tasks that go unnoticed and – unfortunately often – under-developed.(2)
Consider driving to work this morning. This involves starting the car, using the gears, steering with the wheel, and for some of you (not me) using a clutch. You then drive in the correct lane, using turn signals and traffic lights to get yourself to work.
In a perfect world you’d be able to drive down the road with clear weather, no traffic and no distractions; able to focus all of your attention on driving and the technical skill at hand. That’s not realistic. Truthfully when driving to work most people would be chatting to a passenger next to them, thinking about the most efficient route to avoid traffic, responding to the cars around them, and probably encountering minor distractions such as the noises of children/pets in the back seat; and they’d be doing all of these things whilst also operating the car safely.
With the technical skill being defined as operating the vehicle, non-technical stills encompass a lot. Using social skills to interact with the passenger or family in the car, using communication skills to hold a conversation, using geospatial and situational awareness to respond to changing traffic, and using creativity to think about the potential routes that could be taken. These are all non-technical skills to driving and have nothing to do with the physical act of driving the car but require learned skills nevertheless. They are skills that assist us in working efficiently and they are the same set of skills that help us catch errors and respond to quick changes in everyday life.
Everyone makes errors. That’s very much a part of life. However, when you’re in the profession of arms, errors can be fatal. This is why the development of non-technical skills – that ability to adapt to situations, work in difficult teams, and make quick but sound decisions – is so integral to the development of all ADF members. But how is that achieved? How do we teach the skills that no one can see?
The first step is to identify the non-technical skills required. The Applied Psychology and Humans Factors Group of the University of Aberdeen identified non-technical skills as communication skills; leadership skills, team-work skills, decision-making skills; and situational awareness skills.(1) If we know those are the skills we need, how do we develop them? The answer is twofold: self-development and integration of skills into workplace training.
Step One: Self-Development
With the world of Netflix, Instagram and the online realm literally at everyone’s fingertips, trying to manage one’s time effectively is more challenging than ever, with time management being a constant area for improvement on many members’ radars. An article written by Ms Sofia Theodoras of the American Society of Microbiology recommends setting goals to encourage accountability.(3) How does that translate to the everyday life of members of the ADF?
- Set yourself daily goals
- List smaller tasks that must be achieved within a certain timeframe
- Reward yourself when you achieve them
Realistic small goal setting and division of large tasks makes managing a heavy workload achievable.
During this global pandemic, people’s ability to communicate and learn have been stretched and tested; allowing for the development of a new skill set, otherwise untouched, of being creative with communication and learning. With statistics showing that the pandemic has increased online work and presence beyond anything ever seen before, the new way forward for communication is digitally embedded.(4) But it’s not good enough to just talk about what you already know, that is not creative communication and we learn very little from it. What is creative communication then? It’s to discuss ideas, listen to peers and their point of view; and to challenge that with your own – all whilst using new and exciting mediums to test both written and spoken communication skills. How does this translate to the everyday life of members of the ADF?
- How can you embrace a new way of communication?
- How can you challenge your ideas to make room for new learning?
Encourage yourself to get involved, learn something new and challenge the way you think; embrace the new digital world and its endless possibilities.
Being aware of yourself and what’s going on around you is a life skill all members of society use, some better than others. Improving your own situational awareness starts with understanding the environment you’re in, your role, and others’ roles in a team. It’s a constantly evolving skill set rooted in both professional and interpersonal development. The NSW Government Mining sector’s factsheet on the Associated Non-Technical Skill of Situational Awareness examines the importance of critical thinking in teamwork, and utilising predictive thought.(5) How does this translate into the everyday life of members of the ADF?
- What skills do others bring to the table, and how can you encourage them?
- What will make this team work?
- What can be used to help achieve the task at hand?
Think critically about the environments you’re working in, the people you’re working with, and the task at hand.
Step Two: Training
The second manner in which non-technical skills can be developed is through embedding their use in effective training. Commanders of all levels need to be encouraged to embed the use of non-technical skills into technical training. As technology changes and the way we fight shifts to the new world we live in, soft skills will develop alongside. Embracing the development of soft skills has been shown to have direct correlations to career longevity, with The American Management Association stating, 'Research conducted with Fortune 500 CEOs by the Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Melon Foundation, found that 75% of long-term job success depends on people skills, while only 25% on technical knowledge'.(6) Defence-wide non-technical skill development being integrated into training needs to be a priority, and productivity will reap the benefits. The University of Melbourne’s professional development platform explores how integration of non-technical and soft skill education directly and positively impacts productivity in workplaces.(7)
There are, of course, many other ways to improve one’s non-technical skills beyond what has been briefly touched on in this article. Members and Commanders should be encouraged to develop non-technical skills in all environments. As all the evidence shows that by developing those skills, members’ ability to cope with, adapt to, and thrive in a fast-paced Defence environment is further advanced. By developing not only a member’s technical skills but their non-technical also, the ADF creates ideal soldiers who are not only masters of their crafts; but well-rounded professionals able to take on the new world of Defence.
1University of Aberdeen, n.d. Applied Psychology and Human Factors Group Non-technical skills - Applied Psychology and Human Factors (abdn.ac.uk)
2TAFE Queensland, 2020. The importance of soft skills training | TAFE Queensland (tafeqld.edu.au)
3American Society of Microbiology; Sofia Theodoras, Improving Your Non-Technical Skills as a Scientist, 2021. Improving Your Non-Technical Skills as a Scientist (asm.org).
4Statistica.com, 2021. Felix Richter; zoom Keeps Momentum as Workers Stay at Home. Chart: Zoom Keeps Momentum as Workers Stay at Home | Statista
5Government of New South Wales; Mining, Exploration and Geoscience, 2013. Associated non-technical skills overview, Fact Sheet 5; Situational Awareness. ANTS fact sheet No.5-Situation Awareness. (nsw.gov)
6American Management Association, 2019. The Hard Truth about Soft Skills | AMA (amanet.org)
7University of Melbourne, 2020. Why soft skills pay off for productivity and professional progress (unimelb.edu.au)