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Podcast: Curiosity Unbounded, Episode 8 — Hard facts on soft skills


Namrata Kala is an associate professor in applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She studies the value of employee training and incentives, how communities adapt to environmental change and regulation, and the returns on environmental technology investment. 

Here, Namrata speaks with MIT President Sally Kornbluth about the importance of soft skills training, and the benefits of being a straight shooter.


Sally Kornbluth: Hello, I'm Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, and I'm thrilled to welcome you to this MIT community podcast, Curiosity Unbounded. A great pleasure of my job is the opportunity to talk with members of our faculty who recently earned tenure. Like their colleagues in every field here, they're pushing the boundaries of knowledge, their passion and brilliance, their boundless curiosity offer a wonderful glimpse of the future of knowledge.

Today my guest is Namrata Kala. Namrata is an associate professor in applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Her wide-ranging research includes studying how communities adapt to environmental change and regulation, the returns on environmental technology investment, and the value of training employees in soft skills, problem solving, communication skills, the ability to work well with others. Just how important are these skills in terms of work, play, productivity, and how can we measure their impact? So Namrata, welcome to the podcast.

Namrata Kala: Thank you for having me. I think it's amazing that you do this.

Sally Kornbluth: Well, thank you. So you're an economist, you study soft skills. How did you become interested in that field?

Namrata Kala: So as a grad student, I had the good fortune of being able to spend a lot of time in the field. And for a few years what that meant was that I spent a lot of time in these large factories in India where technology is essentially team-based. There's production lines, there's a lot of things going on, and I got to just sit and observe for a really, really long time and talk to both workers and managers to see how productivity happens in these large complicated environments. And what came up a lot was that while it's amazing if workers have really great technical skills, what managers really value and what workers really value in other coworkers is soft skills, the ability to work collaboratively, the ability to communicate, solve problems together. And that got me thinking about what the returns to these might be.

And I was also fortunate enough that there was a training program that they were thinking of rolling out, which I was able to then randomize across workers. And so I often tell my students that getting an idea is great, now you have to spend three years testing it. And in this case it meant after the training program was over, we collected data for another two years at an hourly level to see who sits next to who, what they're working on, what their managers are doing, what their wages are, to get a really comprehensive assessment. But that's how I started thinking about the question.

Sally Kornbluth: So, I was a cancer biologist by training, and I think about what a randomized trial looks like in that setting, for instance, with cancer therapeutics. How do you actually set up a randomized controlled trial? How do you design a controlled study for something like soft skills?

Namrata Kala: I think the answer is with great pain and over many years. But essentially what we did in this case is we told the workers, which was true, that we had limited slots available for the training, because we did not have that many trainers. And in this environment where we don't really know who's going to benefit from this training or who's really serious about it, the fairest way to allocate is via a lottery. And so we were able to design that in that manner.

Now, what was, from my perspective additionally interesting, is that we were also able to randomize whether your co-workers got training or not. So we could then see if you didn't get the training, but your co-worker did, does that make you more productive?

Sally Kornbluth: Does it take two to tango or not?

Namrata Kala: Precisely. So that's how we set it up, and then we just wait and collect data.

Sally Kornbluth: Oh, very interesting, field studies can actually be challenging. From what I understand of your work and this sort of dual training or single training, what was surprising is that their co-workers were more productive even when they received the training. So tell us a little bit about how you think about that.

Namrata Kala: Absolutely. So this also goes back to how we formed this hypothesis, which was just watching them work together. And what we often see is on the production line, there's a snag. So how you solve that when there's a problem is really about workers coming together with the manager to figure it out as opposed to assigning blame or trying to cover it up or something like that. And what we see in the data is there's these positive spillovers. So even if I didn't get training, but my co-worker did, I'm more productive. They are more pronounced when we are working on collaborative type garments, which is sort of consistent with our theory of change, and that they also substitute and complement certain managerial skills.

So, if I have soft skills training, the manager does not need to oversee me. One thing about economics RCTs that I think is fascinating, at least personally, is that you really get to have these slightly complicated stories and then get to collect data to tease out these different mechanisms. And that's sort of fulfilling.

Sally Kornbluth: It's interesting, there's a format of medical school interview where they will bring in multiple candidates for medical school and they have these mini interviews, and they might sit two prospective candidates back to back and have to build a tower, one instructing the other kind of thing. And obviously it's not specific to your scientific knowledge or your technical skills, it's that sort of communication. Can you help somebody else to do something effectively because you will have to work in a team?

Namrata Kala: Absolutely, I think that's a great example. And I think that shows up in all these other rich settings as well.

Sally Kornbluth: Exactly. Because I think much of your work is in developing countries and involves manual labor. I can already hear managers in western companies saying, "That's great, but that's not us." So what would you say to them?

Namrata Kala: Every time I look at these surveys of what skills employers want, they want soft skills. So I think there's some recognition that this is really important. I think what I thought was interesting in our setting is that there were managers who thought technical skills was so much more important-

Sally Kornbluth: Interesting.

Namrata Kala: ... and it was surprising to them. I think if anything, this is more binding for knowledge work and collaborative work and teamwork. So I would tell them, "Try it out. I think you'd be surprised." And I think that this is really, really important from co-authoring papers to making garments.

Sally Kornbluth: That's right. It is interesting and it actually has implications for how we teach our students here and what's important because we can churn out students who have this great technical expertise and if we don't find some ways to impart the soft skills and also a knowledge of the world around them in society, I mean people talk about requirements in humanities, social sciences, et cetera, I think that's important for them to be able to succeed in the workplace.

Namrata Kala: We sort of try to get at this in oblique ways. So at the Sloan School, we try to set up assignments that will bring this out in students, but I think having a more targeted approach would probably be better for students and for the outcomes as well.

Sally Kornbluth: Exactly. So many companies really are concerned about their bottom line. How do you motivate… What are sort of the tangible returns on investment? Presumably In your studies you saw enhanced productivity and less headaches for the managers. Are those the kinds of things?

Namrata Kala: Absolutely, and I think this is part of just my broader research agenda, which is at the intersection of sustainability and productivity. So that's labor, sustainability and productivity and also environmental sustainability and productivity. And what I often find, although not always, is that there are interventions that improve productivity and so are good for firms and that are also good for workers, or that improve sustainability and that are also good for firm returns. And partly just going back to the question of working in developing countries, I think as developing countries struggle with poverty reduction in a world where environmental sustainability is extremely important, these kinds of interventions become important to identify because you can't lose a lot of time saying, "We're going to prioritize the environment later," there is no later, or that we're going to prioritize workers later. These workers need jobs now and you need to get productivity now.

Sally Kornbluth: That's right. We've had a sort of natural field experiment in the sense now that remote work is increasingly calm and especially since many companies were forced to go remote during the COVID pandemic. So, have you thought about or studied soft skills in a sort of remote setting? How does that play out?

Namrata Kala: So, I haven't studied soft skills in a remote setting, but what I have done in some recent work looked at how knowledge work is affected by communication flows and decision rights in the organizations. So, there's a new paper that I have, that's co-authored with James Fenske and Muhammad Haseeb, where we essentially got data, this is really, personally very exciting for me, we got data on private firms in India applying to get environmental permits from the equivalent of a state EPA. And the data included all communication within the regulator. So, we can see bureaucrats escalate and delegate and communicate. And so, we can try to come up with managerial styles, which is related to the soft skills project.

Sally Kornbluth: And this included things like email exchanges.

Namrata Kala: Yeah.

Sally Kornbluth: So, their participation in this is motivated presumably by trying to make their processes better.

Namrata Kala: And there's a reform in the middle that sort of says, "Well now junior offices can decide some aspects of some of these permits." And what we show is A), what does that do for firm outcomes? But B), not all managers delegate, even though it's actually less work if you delegate.

Sally Kornbluth: It's so interesting. That also has implications obviously for how we operate as an administration in the university.

Namrata Kala: Yes.

Sally Kornbluth: The question, you always wonder how much churn there is in communication. In other words, what's moving things forward and what's just getting you stuck in that eddy, around and around and around. And there's the issue of other individuals that may be related to the issue at hand. How much information do they need? What information do they get?

Namrata Kala: Absolutely, absolutely. And in fact, how do baseline working relationships shape the returns to a reform like that?

Sally Kornbluth: Very interesting.

Namrata Kala: What we find is that when junior officers are making recommendations, the rate at which they get overturned predicts after the reform, how much decision rights they get.

Sally Kornbluth: Oh, that's fascinating.

Namrata Kala: And so, it's like when you said stuck in the eddy, I'm like, "That should be a great title for the paper."

Sally Kornbluth: It's all yours.

Namrata Kala: That's exactly what we see in both, that these relationships predict productivity. They also predict future working relationships, and therefore future productivity.

Sally Kornbluth: Yeah, that's very interesting. Presumably also, and I don't know if this is something you can factor into these sort of field studies, but there's almost a network of preexisting relationships when people have social relationship outside the workplace how does that affect these soft skills inside the workplace?

Namrata Kala: Absolutely. And so that has I think, implications for both the returns to an intervention like this, as well as whether you want to target an intervention like this. So, you might want to target people with fewer access to networks because you think it might allow them to make more; depending on what exactly the intervention is, you might want to seed it with someone who has a lot of networks to see it disseminate through the communication network.

Sally Kornbluth: So, another branch of your research focuses on developmental economics. I believe you first came to MIT for a postdoc with what we call J-PAL, the Jameel Poverty Action Lab. And J-PAL is famous for this pioneering of randomized control trials to assess whether a government's poverty fighting interventions were actually effective. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned from being part of J-PAL?

Namrata Kala: The postdoc was in some sense the best of both worlds, because I got to spend time at J-PAL, and then I got to spend some time at the Center of History and Economics at Harvard, and so it was this joint thing. And I had had some experiences with randomized control trials before, but in addition to just cementing the methods for me, one thing that I really admire about some of the things that J-PAL has done is just sort of encourage people to spend more time in the field. So there's less emphasis on armchair development, and I think that's for the better.

I was just joking earlier that in the field is where theories go to die. It's so humbling and you write better papers, you come up with better interventions and collect better data. And I think both in terms of the RCT methods, but also in terms of that aspect I found very compelling.

Sally Kornbluth: I want to talk a little bit about your work related to climate and the environment. Obviously, MIT is in the midst of a large configuring of our climate efforts. We really want to think about how we can best have an impact on the planet. So, your work seems to require its own set of soft skills. So, for example, with farmers, I can imagine you have to earn their trust. With the companies, you have to earn their trust to get access to employees. What is it like studying these soft skills, but really having to do something particularly in the climate arena where it affects people's daily practices so personally, how do you navigate that?

Namrata Kala: This is some of the hardest and most rewarding work that I get to do, which is why I keep doing it despite the, let's just say non-zero failure rate. And so, as an example, one project that I just launched is a randomized control trial that is testing the impact on farmers if they get access to cold storage that is powered by solar. And so, for me, this kind of brings home some of my core interests. It's about climate adaptation. It's about reducing spoilage and improving incomes in the face of heat waves, it's about mitigation. So these aren't things that are going to cause more climate damages, it's solar-powered. And it's about productivity and development where it's saying, "Can we make farmers lives better given these large post-harvest losses that happen in this setting?" And because of that, it required coordinating with a state government, a district government, a startup that's doing the installation, us trying to get research funding, an international NGO that's giving us part of the funding, and then timing it so that we can get the seasonal impacts. And so that sort of gives you a sense of how I try to go about deploying any soft skills that I might have in bringing together these actors.

But at the end of the day, what I'm amazed by is everyone shows up and everyone is so excited about it, which makes it all worthwhile.

Sally Kornbluth: It sounds a little nerve wracking.

Namrata Kala: Oh yeah. I have no stomach lining left. It's just gone.

Sally Kornbluth: Yeah, trying to get the planets to align so that you can actually address your questions. So, one thing, having started to think more about the MIT climate effort, there's always this debate over whether what we really need to fix the climate are policy changes, regulation. In other words, do we already have the technology we need? Versus really putting our eggs in the basket of developing new technologies that might be more affordable, more deployable, particularly in underdeveloped countries, because a lot of the climate change that was produced, obviously all over the world is affecting developing communities disproportionately, and we can make all the policies we want here, they will not necessarily change the practices in other countries.

So, I'm just wondering how you're thinking about that in general, and how you think about that at a place like MIT that in a sense has both sorts of expertise.

Namrata Kala: I think both are necessary and neither is sufficient. I think there's certainly newer technologies that are more adapted to a variety of different settings that could really push the envelope in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. And I think that's hugely important. I also think that field testing technologies in a variety of setting and making sure that the policy conditions are correct is going to go a long way in deploying them at a large enough scale, and getting buy-in, which ends up being very important politically all over the world when it comes to deploying these new technologies. 

So, I think both are hugely important, these new initiatives that are pushing people out of the lab and away from our computers to talk to people who are making these new technologies. I'm super excited about that intersection because I think that's where the real progress is going to go.

Sally Kornbluth: One thing actually you mentioned that I hadn't thought that much about is this sort of virtuous circle. I've thought a lot about technology informing our policy recommendations, but the real-world experience deployment, the soft part of it, as you will, informing the next phase of technology development is also critical. What is the end user's experience and is it really changing practice?

Namrata Kala: For a range of technologies that I look at it really needs to be adapted. So it could be taking into account the fact that the grid isn't as stable, for instance, or that if you're looking at agricultural technologies that are drought-resistant, the range of temperatures you're going to encounter is just very different. And so, the conditions are going to be different, the constraints are going to be different. And so, figuring out what is the best case, real-world return as opposed to the ideal return in the lab, that actually might flip the calculus on adoption across the range of technologies. And so, I think that's really important.

Sally Kornbluth: Sometimes funds are just deployed and they're not actually used. So going out to see how resources are actually being used in the real world obviously can have an impact then again, on the policymakers in a feedback loop.

Namrata Kala: And generate support as you're saying, yeah, for that adoption.

Sally Kornbluth: Exactly. You described your work with companies, but you also work with governments, and you mentioned this cold storage unit. How do you actually interface with governments, particularly in developing countries to actually make such things happen?

Namrata Kala: It's sort of a variety of different ways, but at this point what often happens is either J-PAL or someone else will say there's some work that they're interested in doing. They mentioned that you have a background, or we told them that you have a background so you talk to them. And that first conversation can be a way for a larger collaboration, and sometimes not depending on timelines and feasibility, et cetera. But what I found most useful is just being persistent and showing up and respecting the constraints people in the real world have and trying to work around them is the best recipe for collaboration. And it also buys you a lot of support when things really hit the ground. So, I try to do that with all my projects.

Sally Kornbluth: That's actually a perfect description of success in administration as well, which is laying out what you're going to do, doing what you say you're going to do, and trying to do no harm, and actually I can see in your work that the trust built up over time is important because you need those networks to know that you have access to all the company's materials and you then turn on them, if you will, if it turns out to be an expose rather than... This is critical. I think people, whether it's administration, or in a corporation, or in government, if people come to trust that you're trying to be a straight shooter, that will allow you further access.

Namrata Kala: That's been really key in any of the successes that I've had. And sometimes some of the failures have been because people are just like, "I don't want to... I'm not sure. I'm not going to do it." And in fact, I think what's also been very helpful is early on delineating what the boundaries are as well. So for example, if at any point anybody says, "Well, we'd like to be able to make edits to the paper," and I'm like, "No, that's never going to happen."

Sally Kornbluth: That's right.

Namrata Kala: "But then I'll work with your data, I'll send you insights, we'll collaborate, and then the trust will build up over time."

Sally Kornbluth: So let's turn for a few minutes here. So sort of who you are, we've got a flavor of your work. So where did you actually grow up?

Namrata Kala: So I grew up in India. I'm originally from Punjab and that's where I was born. I was in Delhi for my undergrad, and then I first came to the U.S. for a master's at Yale.

Sally Kornbluth: So what made you come to the U.S. and why economics?

Namrata Kala: Growing up in India, it's very hard to ignore the development challenges that this amazingly innovative country faces. And I think that just naturally makes people interested in problems around development and innovation and sustainability. I did my undergraduate degree in economics. That's where I first found development economics. I decided that's what I wanted to do, and I came to Yale because they had a master's in development economics that was really excellent. And that's where I found environmental economics and decided that that was the intersection I wanted to spend my life in.

Sally Kornbluth: So I think I read somewhere about you that you took up climbing during the pandemic. Is that right?

Namrata Kala: I took up climbing right before the pandemic, yes.

Sally Kornbluth: Tell me a little bit about that. That seems like a hard thing to just take up.

Namrata Kala: I think one of the things you have to do when you take up difficult things like climbing is just not put too many expectations on yourself and just try to enjoy the process. And what I really like about climbing is you don't have to be very good to enjoy it and get some exercise. It's really fun because it's very focusing and problem solving-y, almost a non-intellectual way. And it's great for community. So it's kind of a thing. You go with a bunch of friends, you do a climb, you chit-chat, you catch up on people's lives. And so it's a very nice, fun community activity to do. And once you lay off the pressure of really trying to do that super hot climb, it's immense fun.

Sally Kornbluth: And you get some upper body strength, I guess, too.

Namrata Kala: Not necessarily. Yes, I went in with none, I came out with none.

Sally Kornbluth: I know this isn't really the subject of our conversation, but I am curious how is that the case? The public perception, I would say, or the novice perception of climbing is that it's a kind of upper body effort to pull yourself up. Is that not true?

Namrata Kala: So, if you use your legs, you can get a long way without using upper body strength. The terrifying thing is that the leg holds are really small.

Sally Kornbluth: I see.

Namrata Kala: So, you don't think you can balance on them, but you can.

Sally Kornbluth: Oh, interesting.

Namrata Kala: And if you have no upper body strength like me, you have no choice. So you just get better at form because strength is not an option.

Sally Kornbluth: Oh, interesting. Aside from climbing, what's your favorite ways to spend time off if you have any time off?

Namrata Kala: So I garden in the summer. Again, I don't know if I'm any good, but I really enjoy it. Being outdoors, I think just hiking and gardening as much as I can, I am learning to ski downhill, which is - fun? Having grown up in a hot country, not exactly my comparative advantage, but I'm learning to enjoy it.

Sally Kornbluth: So it's funny. I also like gardening, although I don't have as much time, but also I've been dissuaded. I still remember one time I was growing tomatoes and I came out in the yard and there was a squirrel perched on the fence with one of my tomatoes in his front paws, just kind of enjoying himself eating my tomatoes.

Namrata Kala: But that's how you know you've arrived as a gardener.

Sally Kornbluth: There you go. I see, I see.

Namrata Kala: You have both grown tomatoes, and animals have shown up to endorse them.

Sally Kornbluth: There you go. There you go.

Namrata Kala: That's the pinnacle, yeah.

Sally Kornbluth: Anyway, well, I've really enjoyed hearing a little bit about your professional interests, getting to know you a little bit as a person. I'm sure that our listeners will enjoy hearing all of this as well.

Namrata Kala: Thank you so much again for doing this. This has been wonderful.

Sally Kornbluth: To our audience, thank you again for listening to Curiosity Unbounded. I very much hope you'll join us again. I'm Sally Kornbluth. Stay curious.

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