What are non-technical skills?

One of the approaches to help minimise errors is the idea of non-technical skills. Technical skills are the skills you learn to be able to do your job – like being able to control the speed of a train or knowing where to look when dispatching a train. Non-technical skills are the softer skills that can help you do your job well.

Importantly, skills have to be things that you can improve through practice – playing the piano, swimming, and speaking a foreign language are all examples of skills that improve the more you practice them. Non-technical skills are the same and a lot of research has been done in other safety critical industries to determine what are the most important non-technical skills. Professor Rhona Flin, along with her colleagues, wrote a book called ‘Safety at the Sharp End’ which presents their research on non-technical skills in the oil and gas industry.

Generally, the main non-technical skills are situation awareness, decision making, communication and teamwork.

Situation awareness is the ability to gather the important information from the environment around you, understand what it means, and use it to develop an expectation of what will happen next. Tennis coaches use brightly coloured wristbands to draw learner’s attention to their opponent’s wrists, because that’s where key cues about the next shot can be learned. Aircraft pilots develop scanning strategies to make sure they are checking the important information about the aircraft speed, altitude, and heading regularly. Understanding what this information means and how the situation is going to progress allows them to develop their awareness of risk.

A lot of research has been done on how people make decisions, and there is still more work to be done. But we can break it down into two extremes – on one end of the scale is the considered judgements we make when we have a lot of time, and the decision is important. If you want to buy a new car or house, you typically spend a lot of time considering the options and what is important to you before you make a final decision. This is rational, conscious decision making. But far more common is the type of decision making at the other end of the scale where we make an instinctive decision about what is right or what we want and do that without considering many options or alternatives.

– Developing decision making skills involves recognising when an important decision has to be made and resisting the urge to rush into the first option that occurs. Using an acronym to break decisions down into parts can help. RSSB have recently developed one called FORCE which stands for Facts (what do I know about the situation?), Options (what are my options?), Risks (what are the risks involved with the different options?), Choose (make your choice) and Evaluate (check that the decision is working out the way you expected). Pilots routinely use acronyms like these to help them deal with unexpected situations on the flight deck and they practice using them in simulators so that when they have to use them in reality, the decision-making skill is developed and ready to go.

Communication and teamwork are quite tightly related, since good communication is a key part of good teamwork. Good communication skills can be developed by practicing safety critical communications procedures and by practicing listening to others.

Teamwork can be developed by applying communication skills to support the people working with you.

Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) have a framework on non-technical skills for the rail industry which includes the skills above. In addition to these skills, the framework also includes some behaviours or cultural elements such as treating others with respect and having a positive attitude to rules and regulations. These can’t be trained through practice but can be developed and influenced by those around us. The RSSB framework also includes some traits which can’t be trained or developed – they are fairly stable within an individual and we must try to ensure that people have these traits before they are selected for a role where they are important. Examples of these are attention to detail, the ability to maintain concentration, and the ability to multi-task.