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Technology Companies Need to Make Hard Choices to Teach More “Soft Skills”
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By Drew Westra
As anybody in IT can attest, the skills gap companies are facing is real, and it’s getting more pronounced. The Great Resignation trend is hitting IT hard. Nearly 90% of all employers either already have a shortage or expect to face one within a few years. And a third say the problem has already grown worse over the past year alone.
Employers are approaching the skills issue proactively. They’re offering more perks to attract highly qualified applicants, of course. Many are also setting up certification programs to arm their work forces with more of the IT “technical skills” that are in high demand – everything from networking to technical support to machine learning to cybersecurity and analytics.
Efforts like these can help raise the technical skill levels inside organizations. But they won’t ensure that IT teams have the broad range of skills, knowledge, overall business acumen and emotional intelligence they need to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
To manage increasingly complex IT environments, organizations need to add more of the “power skills” that aren’t usually associated with the IT profession. These include the interpersonal skills that enable teams to go way beyond tinkering with technology – everything from workplace collaboration to leadership to critical thinking. These are the skills that enable teams to make technology work optimally for the organization itself.
To a certain extent, these types of power skills are innate; certain people just seem to perform them better than others. But these skills can also be taught. And many organizations are building up skill levels in these areas by taking advantage of flexible, anytime, anywhere, learning-as-a-service models that enable workers to develop on the fly.
Here are six nontechnical talents your staff should be skilled up on, and how you can teach them:
Collaboration – Promoting Teamwork
In sports, teams that play together well generally have an edge over those who don’t. The same applies to tech organizations. “Team players” collaborate with each other on tasks, mentor each other and focus strategically on solving problems that hold back the larger group. Managers are responsible for creating a team dynamic. But individuals can learn what it takes to collaborate. Courses can focus on conflict management techniques, listening, assessing group dynamics, carving out a productive role and applying individual expertise to organizational goals.
Critical Thinking – Digging into a Problem with a Broader Perspective
To perform effectively in their job, IT managers need to bring a lot of skills to the table. It’s not enough to just punch the clock and check off items from the to-do list. It’s important to think – deeply and broadly – about potential problems and how to solve them. Management training courses often devote segments to critical thinking skills. Concepts like analytical thinking, open-mindedness and self-regulation are central to the act of problem framing in a technology environment. This involves committing to gathering the best information, regardless of source, and shedding biases when it comes time to make a decision. Developing a sound critical thinking process establishes trust from peers and helps individuals keep aligned to the bigger picture.
Leading Through Ideation – Building Collaboration into the Process
While leaders have the final say, they can’t be the only ones talking. Others need to contribute ideas, and let the group decide on the right one to pursue. This requires an organizational commitment to ideation. Both managers and team members need to prioritize the practice – and work on it. There are techniques to employ that may seem obvious, but they can be taught. Brainstorming, for instance. Workshops can teach ways to create structured processes that encourage out-of-the-box proposals, keep contributors focused, collect ideas, track progress and develop feedback loops. Another technique – “bodystorming” – encourages participants to act out situations and put them in the user’s place. Teams that use their ideation skills to the fullest solve problems more quickly and effectively than those headed by autocratic leaders.
Practicing Inclusiveness – More Points of View Generate More Value
In society the term “inclusiveness” has focused on acceptance of individuals regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. It can be seen as even more broad-ranging – the ability to blend with others that are different from you in any way. This is a skill. The workplace is a melting pot of people with different experiences, approaches, talents, problem-solving abilities and work styles. Being able to listen to others, help others and be helped by others helps organizations advance overall levels of innovation.
Problem Solving– Removing Roadblocks Before They Happen
Work can be seen as a series of sequential, interconnected problems that need to be solved to ensure a smooth flow of progress. Inability to solve one problem invariably backs up the whole process. There are problem-solving techniques that can break the logjam. One that’s being taught across disciplines is to address specific issues in a journalistic who-what-where fashion. Who is most affected by this problem? What does this problem prevent from moving forward? Where did this problem take place? When does it take effect? Why is it happening? How is it affecting workflows and team members from being productive? Performing effective problem-solving helps individuals lower stress levels and remove roadblocks to eventual success.
Decision Making – Ideation to Execution
Ideas are helpful, but they won’t benefit the organization’s mission if the best ones aren’t put into action. Decisions need to be made. Leaders, of course, have to control the big, sweeping moves, but rank-and-file technologists need to successfully decide how to move tasks forward on their agendas. How can they do that better? Courses and workshops can focus on specific decision-making techniques. Here’s one string to follow: 1) Identify the problem; 2) Gather relevant information; 3) Brainstorm possible solutions; 4) List potential consequences; 5) Make a decision; 6) Take action. Making timely, well-informed decisions advances business objectives and prepares each contributor to take on more responsibility.
Companies are only as effective as the people they employ. The technology sector is currently facing challenges recruiting and keeping qualified workers. Moving forward, they’ll need to double down on efforts to develop skills from within – not just in technologies themselves but also in the skill areas that advance the organizations as a whole.
Drew Westra is a Worldwide Marketing Leader in HPE Educational Services, with over 25 years’ experience in the information technology, telephony and wireless industries. As an entrepreneur, he has also successfully developed several small businesses into thriving organizations.