There was a time, not so long ago, when the IT department was like an island unto itself. The CIO may have had to venture into the boardroom and chat with “the suits,” but many IT staff were high-tech gurus who did not need to care about the bottom line, refined communication skills or managing employees.
Times have changed.
As the role of IT has become more malleable within organizations, so too has the need for the department’s employees to be more flexible. Employers still find technical acumen a necessary skill, of course, but they now are looking for social and business skills in job candidates as well.
How can IT workers — who are essentially the soul of the department, determining its effectiveness or lack thereof — best adjust to this new reality?
For starters, it is important to define exactly which of the so-called “soft” skills will be most in demand.
John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told the E-Commerce Times that as the IT department integrates with other departments, corporations will experience sharply increased need for employees who can explain technology, interact with customers and manage projects.
Communication, in particular, is proving to be the most crucial skill that employers demand. As Challenger said, “IT needs people who can explain issues and problems clearly and at all levels. If you want to gain more responsibility and have a greater leadership role, learning effective interpersonal communication skills is the most important thing you can do.”
Likewise, Dana Deasy, senior vice president and global CIO at Tyco, told the E-Commerce Times that when it comes to hiring, the first thing he looks for is not listed in the education or experience portion of a candidate’s resume.
“They should be able to talk to a table full of nontechnical executives and make themselves understood,” he said. “This is the skill that seems the hardest to find, and the one that I think IT employees should really focus on developing.”
Deasy added, “If IT is going to integrate successfully with the rest of an enterprise, it needs to have a presence in the boardroom.”
To gain soft skills, IT workers can rely on training, which may be comforting, considering that training is a familiar recourse for anyone who must maintain a current technology education.
Classes in management and communications can hone an employee’s business edge, while social skills can be learned in seminars on team building or customer service.
Jonathan Thatcher, certification development manager at CompTIA, told the E-Commerce Times that his company’s project management certifications have been receiving a great deal of attention lately.
“Historically, project management wasn’t seen as being needed for IT folks,” he noted. “It was for fields like construction, where a lot of different pieces had to come together. But when project management is applied to IT, it can have the same effect, allowing IT to scope, document and monitor their projects. For individuals, it opens new doors.”
Those are the doors to management, leading straight to the boardroom and new respectability. Thatcher added: “With a certification like this, [workers] can transition into other areas. I know you start looking more interesting to career placement people when you have management and soft skills.”
Another method of sharpening social and business dexterity is to ask for help from those who have learned these skills previously. A small cash outlay for a business coach can translate into a good investment if it helps boost an IT employee within a company. Some companies may even offer reimbursement.
“Coaching will help you understand how you communicate and see what your role is,” Challenger said. “You can work on delivering presentations and speeches with a coach, or figure out what other issues you need to look at.”
The best tactic of all, Challenger noted, is to find a mentor in the industry. “It’s great to get someone who you can count on to be honest with you and teach you,” he said.
Mentors may be found within a company or through an outside program. Technology associations and university technology departments often provide mentorship opportunities.
Yet another way for entry-level IT workers to acquire social savvy is by completing an apprenticeship or internship that combines business skill with technology prowess.
Neill Hopkins, CompTIA’s vice president of workforce development and training, told the E-Commerce Times that the training firm has developed an apprenticeship program using grants from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The worker of tomorrow will have to have a broad range of skills but will also need on-the-job learning skills,” he said.
Given the difficult job market, internships have become a way for IT employees not only to get a foot in the door, but also to learn what companies expect in terms of soft skills and business knowledge. Companies, too, benefit by being able to train young or relatively inexperienced staffers.
“A lot of people who got certified three or four years ago are now in management positions,” Hopkins said. “They’ve had to learn how to work with other departments, and now they’re expecting other people in the IT department to have those skills, too. Or at least be willing to learn them.”