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The Great Debate: Will IT Skills Make People Skills Extinct?

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Is sacking by text message acceptable? Is face-to-face no longer reguired? Adam Ripley, managing director of IS Integration debates the points.


The last two decades have seen IT become an integral part of the workplace. The internet explosion has given us access to more information than previous generations had access to in entire lifetimes. The internet also gave birth to what is now the most used means of communication in the modern workplace - email.

In a mere twenty or so years, email has gone from being a computer company exclusive to communication tool no modern corporation would be without. As a result, the way we communicate with co-workers, our boss and employees has changed dramatically.

Email traffic has taken over from the traditional phone conversation and instant messaging has also grown significantly. As a result face-to-face interaction has decreased significantly. But this is by no means the death of people skills in the workplace.

It simply provides a medium for people to communicate; so the increase in IT in the workplace has not killed people skills, it has simply changed the way people interact.

People have had to become a lot more computer savvy to survive in the workplace.

Traditional forms of business communication such as letter writing and phone conversations have been replaced with more net centric communication such as email and instant messaging. However the history and common understandings regarding how letters and phone conversations should be used do not exist for new communication styles, so business blunders, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are frequent.

These changes have introduced a new set of interpersonal skills and etiquette that needs to be enforced in the workplace. Deeming what is appropriate and inappropriate for email and instant messaging is a struggle for organisations.

An example of this is the number of workplaces that have used instant messaging inappropriately to announce redundancies. GMB members employed by the AA reported back to the union that selected patrol staff received two text messages on their mobile phones inviting them to accept £12,000 to leave the employment of the AA.

This was followed up by a second message inviting those targeted with the first message to give the manager a ring. This is reminiscent of the 2,500 workers at personal injury claims firm The Accident Group who were made redundant via text message, in 2003.

We are only just now beginning to see the effects these technologies are having on our workplace and the roles we play within them. Take email as an example.

Email is probably the most convenient form of written communication. However, overuse and spam has skewed the effectiveness of email. Hampered by overflowing inboxes, employees often spend too long trying to manage email overload and often miss important messages.

This can in turn affect productivity. However this situation highlights the fact that verbal communication of email policies and good management procedures is the best way of controlling email overload - an example of where technology needs people skills.

What is clear from these examples of instant messaging and email communication is that we are still learning how we should make the best of what technology has to offer.

The truth is that technology will never replace face-to-face interaction. People respond to human communication and important issues can’t be dealt with via email, they must be done face-to-face. With between 55-70 per cent of communication being non-verbal (i.e. through tone of voice and body language) communicating difficult messages through email or instant messaging is almost impossible.

However the main reason why people skills will never be replaced with IT is that engaging people is the most fundamental part of business, and this needs to be done on an emotional, enthusiastic and passionate level which can only be conveyed via face-to-face interaction.

IT is a perfect example of this. For years techies were considered nerdy with their traditional stereotype of thick black-rimmed glasses, high waisted pants and ‘Rain man’ type conversational skills.

However, as technology has become more pervasive and more user friendly the need for technicians who understand the detail has reduced whilst the need for business focused people with a broad understanding of how to exploit technology has increased. Because of this IT professionals are moving away from the geek image and using their interpersonal skills to connect with others in the workplace.

If IT professionals are embracing people skills, it is a sign that IT is not likely to make people skills extinct, if anything it has raised people’s awareness of just how important communication and human interaction in the workplace really is.

IS Integration is a test consultancy specialist. For more information please go to www.isintegration.com

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