Why soft skills outweigh hard skills for IT-business collaboration

By Sarah K. White Dec 15th 2016
Why soft skills outweigh hard skills for IT-business collaboration

There's a growing demand for more cross-collaboration with IT and other departments, which means IT workers not only need technical skills, but also the soft skills to serve as the authority on all-things-tech.

For most businesses, IT has traditionally operated separately from the rest of the business -- employees knew to submit a ticket when something wasn't working, but for the most part, IT worked behind the scenes.

Now, technology is in the hands of every employee, which means IT can no longer control all the hardware, software and apps coming through the door. With more departments relying on technology, it will require more collaboration with IT to help find the best products and to educate workers on security risks.

But this demand for collaboration has also caused a shift in the skills employers value in IT workers. Businesses are looking to hire candidates with soft skills, who are "versatile and willing to collaborate with each other to solve problems as a team, rather than as individual experts," says Patric Palm, CEO and co-founder of Favro, a company that offers project management and collaboration tools.

"T-shaped" employees

The skills needed in IT change so frequently that businesses are more interested in finding qualified candidates with strong soft skills -- workers who can grow and adapt in a quickly changing landscape, says Palm. Qualified workers can always take a course or complete training in areas where they need more knowledge, but it's not as easy to teach someone how to be collaborative or to communicate effectively.

Palm says she's seen an increase in applicants that fit this "t-shaped personality," which means "an individual has a broad set of skills, but only a few areas where the skillset goes deep." T-shaped workers are the type of employees who are "agile and able to rapidly adapt to new changes," she says. They constantly adjust to new and uncharted territory, learn new skills as needed and stay up to date on emerging trends.

These types of employees will better understand that there isn't a "single solution for everything," says Topher Wren, senior vice president of enterprise technology at the telecommunications services provider, West Corporation. Instead, IT workers will need to be able to identify "a suite of preferred solutions so departments can choose based upon their application."

Communicating policies and procedures

It's not just IT workers who have to adjust to increasing collaboration. Every department needs to start recognizing IT as an integral part of the business, says Wren. Depending on how IT spending is divided up in the company, some departments outside have IT purchasing power, but that doesn't mean they're consulting with IT before making decisions.

"Leaders within departments will need to vet communication tools with their IT teams before adopting new technologies. Before embracing something new, it's important that IT can assess how the new tool will impact the organization's operations and security protocols," says Wren.

Oftentimes, department heads will go through the process of implementing new software, without consulting IT. Wren says that IT can not only help departments find the right tools, but also identify which ones work best with networks and systems already in place. Or, they might even know of a similar tool that is already in use and licensed by the company, which can save everyone money. But IT needs to instill a culture where employees know they should check in first before installing new apps.

"Though technology preferences and habits differ across departments, it's still important for IT to establish standard solutions and policies for all employees to use and abide by. And the team's job doesn't stop at implementation," says Wren.

Opening the lines of communication

Wren says it's important for IT to build its relationship with the rest of the company -- especially with remote workers. The first step is to ensure everyone has an easy, simple way to get in touch with IT if they need help or advice -- whether it's an internal platform or a more popular service, like Slack. Departments can even establish a point person to work with IT to communicate their needs, but it's up to IT to make the first move.

"Employees must see IT as a partner to solving their challenges. To that end, IT leaders must be easily accessible to all employees," says Wren.

Opening communication is one of the best ways to get more insight into -- and to avoid -- "shadow IT," says Wren. Shadow IT might sound sinister, but it's usually something as simple as an employee innocently skirting an IT-approved app or service to use one that they like better. But, if employees are participating in shadow IT, it suggests that it's never been properly communicated to them that they should check in with IT first.

Palm says that it takes time to build this rapport between IT and employees, but there are steps to help make the transition easier. She suggests taking it one step at a time, to unify everyone under a common goal and then have management over-see cross-collaborative projects until everyone finds their groove.

"One mistake many businesses make is throwing employees in the water, so to speak, and hoping they will automatically self-organize. Especially with employees working across departments, this presents a lot of risk," says Palm.

Communicating cybersecurity threats

Collaboration is going to become especially important moving forward at concerns around cybersecurity increase around the globe. Employees are often the biggest security threat at any company, as demonstrated by shadow or rogue IT, so leaders need to figure out ways to educate workers on security protocol in the company, says Wren.

Technology is forcing IT to change and adapt to a business model that now relies on technology -- a growing number of workers can do their job with just a mobile device and a Wi-Fi connection. IT can no longer control every device or app that comes in the doors, so the last hope is to educate workers so that they understand the implications, and use best practices.

"Under this system, IT has the authority to set policy but also the obligation to authorize users and manage conduct. In turn, users have the obligation to adhere to policy and conduct interactions responsibly," says Wren.

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