IT professionals tend to focus on technical and project management skills, but soft skills are just as critical for success says Eddie Kilkelly.
IT underpins every aspect of organisational life – and initiatives to improve performance are often technology-based. This is why the ability to deliver successful projects is one of the most important issues facing senior IT professionals. A recent survey1 of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and senior IT managers found that five key factors continue to contribute to project failure. These factors are 'a lack of clear objectives” (66%); 'unrealistic deadlines' (58%); 'poor communications with the team and/or third parties' (45%); 'a lack of commitment from senior managers' (33%); and 'a lack of core skills within the team' (30%).
The common link is people, supporting the Association for Project Management’s assertion that 80% of project failures result from the things people do wrong. While there are different project management methodologies, any project stands a greater chance of success if the parties involved are fully engaged, if they share a common vocabulary and understanding of their objectives, and they can work collaboratively to identify and resolve any issues. A shared methodology helps, but individuals also need to be personally resilient and effective in working with others.
Soft skills training improves competence
Training can greatly increase personal effectiveness and the good news is that CIOs and senior IT managers take professional development seriously. In the above survey, 41% of respondents were undertaking a professional IT service management qualification such as ITIL; 31% were undertaking a professional programme or project management qualification such as PRINCE2; and a further 31% were being trained in leadership skills. However, only 19% of managers specifically said that they were being trained on soft skills or emotional intelligence programmes.
"The most powerful training will be conducted in cross-functional teams, mimicking the actual workplace, and will incorporate ongoing coaching and mentoring support to embed and reinforce the training."
The IT skills the organisation needs change in line with the adoption of new technologies, so it’s understandable that training budgets focus on technical or project skills development, particularly when training budgets are tight. It’s much harder to define the need for and measure the effectiveness of soft skills training. However, there is a groundswell of opinion that emotional intelligence - self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management - is the key attribute that bridges the gap between being technically competent to run a project and being personally competent to deliver project success. Therefore, modest investment in soft skills training could save organisations thousands or even millions of pounds in avoidable project failure.
Take a practical approach
IT professionals are instinctively logical and practical and may need to be convinced of the need for soft skills training. Personality profiling can help improve self-awareness and demonstrate the need to understand people better. Similarly, it’s important to understand the impact of change on different stakeholders and the importance of consultation and engagement to win hearts and minds.
All professionals – including IT specialists - need to learn to avoid using jargon in multidisciplinary project teams. For example, when options arise it is more effective to ask 'which performs better and if there is no difference then which change is the least costly and disruptive?' than become bogged down in technicalities.
How the training is delivered also is critical. Staff will respond to practical training that helps them hone their skills in dealing with typical responsibilities and interactions in an action learning environment. The most powerful training will be conducted in cross-functional teams, mimicking the actual workplace, and will incorporate ongoing coaching and mentoring support to embed and reinforce the training.
The 'IT Crowd'-type perceptions of one-dimensional geeks could equally apply to any professional who uses industry jargon and is passionate about what they do. As a former head of IT, I know that IT professionals have the same drive to succeed as any other employee. It’s up to training managers to help IT professionals enhance their competence and performance by driving soft skills up the corporate agenda and empowering IT professionals to develop and utilise those skills. The success of every organisation depends upon it.
Reference: 1 The survey, entitled ‘Understanding why projects and programmes may fail’, was conducted by independent technology market research specialists Vanson Bourne in February 2014. 100+ senior IT managers and directors were surveyed amongst organisations with a workforce of 1001 – 3,000 and 3,000+ in the UK. The sample spanned a number of vertical sectors, including financial services, manufacturing, retail, distribution & transport, business & professional services, and each sector was equally represented.
Eddie Kilkelly is managing director at insynergi, a provider of bespoke coaching, mentoring and training support for all levels within an organisation. The insynergi team collectively has 300 years’ experience in supporting organisations across industry sectors at a local and global level. insynergi is part of the Outsource Education Group which has over 50 staff and a turnover in excess of £5m