6 soft skills IT needs to succeed in the digital era

When it comes to transformation, tech expertise goes only so far. IT leaders must look for and develop traits not traditionally required for technologists in order to succeed in the years ahead.

6 soft skills IT needs to succeed in the digital era
Getty Images

CIOs have a workforce problem.

As their companies seize on automation, AI and other leading-edge technologies to remake themselves into digital organizations, they’re finding they don’t have the skills they need.

Consider some numbers released by Gartner this fall: The IT research firm found that 70 percent of employees have not mastered the skills they need for their existing jobs while 80 percent lack the skills they need now and for future career success.

Moreover, only 44 percent of the more than 2,500 CIOs polled in a recent Robert Half Technology report said their technology departments were adequately staffed and 77 percent said it was somewhat or very challenging to find people with up-to-date digital skills. Worse, 38 percent of the companies responding to a recent Nintex report indicated that transformation initiatives failed to meet expectations because of a lack of sufficient in-house talent.

Leading executives must take action in identifying skills their technology teams need to succeed in digital transformation efforts today and in the years ahead. Professional services firm PwC, for example, has a “digital upskilling” program to teach its 50,000-plus employees what they need to know for the company to be successful into the future.

“We recognize that we had to skill people across the firm differently, including our IT team, to survive and thrive. We had to bring everyone, including our IT team, to a shared level of digital acumen and digital awareness,” says Chief Digital Officer Joe Atkinson.

PwC is upskilling its workers in digital fluency, data wrangling, data storytelling, artificial intelligence, data and robotics — similar to many other organizations. Atkinson says that’s only some of the critical skills required to move forward. Workers also need to identify and define problems, be nimble, and have a user experience mindset, he says.

The top skills for digital transformation are an unusual set, far different than in years past, with technology expertise sharing top billing with characteristics and traits not traditionally required for technologists. Case in point: Deloitte’s 2018 global CIO survey found that creativity, cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence are already in strong demand and are expected to be even more desirable in three years.

Here is a look at the top soft skills deemed critical for digital transformation, now and in the years ahead.

Big-picture perspective

As more IT shops move to agile development methodologies and adopt product ownership over project management, CIOs need workers who understand how their contributions fit into the enterprise as a whole, says David Collins, senior vice president of IT at Addison Group, a professional staffing and search firm.

“They want someone able to see the big picture vs. someone who is more laser-focused on only what they’re doing,” he says.

This big-picture mentality ensures that the technologist is thinking about the business as a whole, how his or her contribution could impact a project or a workflow, and whether their work will integrate well with other systems — all of which help ensure smoother, speedier, more successful IT endeavors, Collins explains.

Collins recently interviewed a candidate who discussed how he helped identify business needs and built applications that addressed those needs along with the impact each application had on the business and the technology used in each app. It’s that kind of all-around talent that companies need, Collins adds, noting that the candidate had multiple job offers as a result.

Client empathy

The move to product vs. project management has increased both the prevalence and importance of the product manager position. IT leaders say the technologists who do best in that role are those who empathize with users.

“It’s understanding what the client needs and how to fulfill those needs,” says Dean Pipes, chief innovation architect at TetraVX, a unified communications provider. “It’s design thinking that’s empathy driven.”

Management consultants say IT departments need workers who aren’t just focused on being responsive to customers but who can be truly customer-centric by getting at what customers feel about the technology they use.

“They have to think about the customer experience. You can be the best developer that ever existed, but if you can interact with and understand customers, you won’t be as valuable to the organization,” says Ryan Sutton, the Northeast district president for Robert Half Technology.

Consulting capabilities

Donagh Herlihy, executive vice president and CTO at Bloomin Brands, a Tampa, Fla.-based company that owns several casual-dining restaurant chains, says IT needs to be at the forefront of helping organizations develop their strategic roadmaps and influencing decision-making around digital investments.

Yet, Herlihy found, even within his own organization, that technologists don’t speak up enough to offer opinions in cross-functional meetings.

“There was a gap in terms of their ability to influence and communicate and consult with their peers from other areas and with other people more senior in the hierarchy,” Herlihy says.

He speculates that such behavior is left over from the days when IT saw its role as fulfilling business needs. However, IT today needs to help set direction and shape thinking. “We need consultative skills,” he adds.

Herlihy worked with Ouellette & Associates Consulting to develop consulting skills among his technology team, helping them to build trust and best express their opinions to influence outcomes.

“We’re giving them the skills they need to work in this world of cross-functional teams where they’re not being fed requirements but [instead] working more directly with business leaders, so they have confidence to express their views in the right way to influence others,” Herlihy says.

Marketing and promotion

When Deloitte asked CIOs about the business side perception of IT in its global IT survey, only 14 percent said their business colleagues see the technology function as a market leader while 87 percent said the business sees them as fast followers, laggards or delinquent.

Those perceptions may be accurate in many cases, but Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates, says business leaders too often don’t give enough credit to their IT teams because IT teams aren’t great at trumpeting their own value.

IT needs to get better at its own marketing, Roberts says. The IT team — from the CIO on down — needs to become an ambassador for the technology department by creating awareness of its value.

“The whole notion of having a marketing skill set is critical today. It’s how we’re able to communicate a new vision and change the narrative and paint the picture of what’s possible,” Roberts says.

Herlihy agrees, saying it’s something he aims to instill in his own workers.

“IT folks tend to have a mindset that says we don’t want to seek attention and if we do good work, the work will speak for itself. It’s one of the few places in business where that’s the default mindset,” he says. “But promoting the value of IT isn’t a self-serving thing; it’s to make sure that, as we get into tough discussions about resource allocations, IT as a function is appreciated. That’s important because in a world where IT is driving transformation, being under allocated doesn’t put IT at risk, it puts the business at risk.”

The ability to present well

With the IT team directing digital transformation at many organizations, CIOs expect staff members to lead business colleagues through the myriad steps the organization is taking to move forward. As part of that, IT employees aren’t just at the meetings — they’re frequently running them.

There are many positives to that scenario, Sutton says, with one of the most critical benefits being that IT hears directly from users about what they need. There’s less back-and-forth over requirements, and more direct communication and interaction that lead to better insights into business needs and user requirements.

Yet technologists tasked with leading meetings must bring their communication skills to a whole new level to be successful and reap those benefits.

“Executives are stepping aside saying, ‘This is your project; you present it.’ So they need to know how to run a meeting, whether it’s virtual or in person. They need presentation skills so they can run a webinar or a conference call. That’s a completely different ability than what you were expecting technologists to have three to five years ago,” Sutton says.

An inquisitive mind

Digital transformation has prompted the creation on new roles within the enterprise.

Robert Half Technology, in its Staffing Digital Projects report, calls out chief evangelist, Scrum master, software solutions specialist, chief development officer and UX strategist as some of the new positions.

CIOs, industry analysts and management consultants also cite the continued need for more cybersecurity experts and data specialists as well as a growing interest in skills required to leverage emerging technologies such as AI and automation. And they note that IT departments will need more technologists who can successfully work on product teams and in agile environments if they want to be successful in the digital era.

More importantly, however, they say enterprise IT shops should seek out employees who have an interest and ability to constantly learn so that they — and, thus, the IT department and the entire organization — are best equipped to keep pace as technologies evolve.

As Roberts notes, the average technology skill today has a half-life of 18 months, meaning a technology and the skills required to use it can be obsolete within mere years. Technology departments can’t afford to have technologists who want to learn a skill and spend years utilizing it; they need workers who can learn fast and adapt quickly.

Atkinson says PwC talks about it as “infinite learning,” saying that the firm has shifted away from days-long training in conference rooms to minutes-long video and podcasts that workers access in bursts whenever they can.

“That’s the biggest skill for us,” he says, “the desire to learn the next thing. That’s much more important today than it has ever been.”

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

Watch out for these 6 IT management traps to avoid