IT pros need people skills

By Eric Berridge

The new IT pro is going to be like a turtle -- a shell of technical or "hard" skills surrounding an underbelly of people skills, otherwise known as "soft" skills. Jobs will of course continue to demand the analytical prowess we traditionally expect from IT as companies update their infrastructures to meet increasingly erratic and complex business demands. However, the omnipresence of technology in peoples' work and daily lives will force CIOs to add descriptors like "emotional intelligence" to their hiring vocabulary.

We've talked before in The Agile Business' Blog about how IT is increasingly becoming integrated with the rest of the business because of employees' growing reliance on tech to do their jobs, and the evolution of technology from business enabler to business driver. The consumerization of IT is a related trend that is gaining steam with thinkers like Geoffrey Moore, author of "Crossing the Chasm." Much research and discussion around this has focused on how people are increasingly using their own devices instead of company-issues. But iPads at work are just ripples on the surface. Collaborative and social apps in the consumer market are shaping the face of enterprise software to resemble Facebook and Twitter.

One of the first places we're seeing this is with Customer Relationship Management (CRM). As "social" gains prominence at the enterprise level, CRM is being transformed into a new concept: the Customer Social Network, or CSN. Where we once had linear communication through transaction-based applications, we now face an exercise in controlled chaos as management, employees, customers and the public at large all interact in real time through collaborative applications.

I'd wager it's not an IT buzzword yet, but emotional intelligence -- the ability to discern and address the emotional responses of others -- is vital for tomorrow's IT pro. Peoples' ability to effectively leverage technology in their work may largely be based on emotional, rather than intellectual criteria. Social media fuels a basic human desire to connect. Employees aren't going to invest themselves in enterprise software that resembles Facebook for entirely intellectual reasons, but rather because of the emotional charge they get from connecting with co-workers and customers to draw meaning from their work.

Perhaps it goes without saying that IT professionals will need expertise in collaborative technologies, and we're certainly seeing this bear out in demand for developers with skills in that arena. What many fail to recognize, however, is that IT staffers will also need to be experts in communication. In order to architect and manage the systems that connect employees across departments, management and customers, they're going to need an intimate knowledge of not just how the organization operates, but how people communicate.

As you evaluate potential hires, look for folks who understand people as well as technology. First, gauge their listening skills. Tomorrow's IT pro may in many instances succeed or fail based on their ability to deliver intuitive, engaging solutions -- something that can only be accomplished by taking a deep dive into what the users really need and want. Do candidates practice "active listening" by seeking to truly understand? One sure sign of an active listener is their ability to offer insightful follow-up questions.

Additionally, look for not just enthusiasm and vision, but also a collaborative outlook. Do they work with others to solve problems? Are they able to work with people who are less tech-oriented in their thinking?

They're going to have to make sure systems are in line and reporting to each other, and map the technology to business processes so that employees can iteratively improve practices on a daily basis. They'll need to do all this and more...within the context of human communication. IT is not only going to have to build technology for the non-technical, but explain it to them as well.

Eric Berridge is co-founder and principal of agile business consulting firm Bluewolf, which provides lifecycle innovation, cloud implementations, IT staffing, managed services and other services to sync business and IT for efficient, adaptive performance. He also co-authored the book "Iterate or Die" along with Bluewolf co-founder Michael Kirven.

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