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How to ensure tech staff gain ‘essential soft skills’

Nottingham Trent University’s infrastructure services manager explains how she has made sure her technology team have the essential soft skills they need to support users

Companies and universities should ensure that their technology teams have the right level of “conversational competence”, according to Amanda Ferguson, infrastructure services manager at Nottingham Trent University.

Speaking at the 2017 Jisc Networkshop45, Ferguson said technical staff do not always have the soft skills needed to communicate with other employees, and need to be trained through mentorship.

Despite popular misconceptions, skills such as good communication are essential – “particularly for senior tech people who have to talk to users”, she said.

Ferguson admitted: “Tech teams aren’t great at explaining themselves. Conversational competence is a given – you need to be able to have a proper conversation.”

Many organisations have complained that they cannot find technical candidates with the soft skills needed to fill current technology roles.

Ferguson said that when technical people are trying to explain tech issues to other staff members, they should be fully engaged, to the point and ensure that they don’t repeat themselves. To help pass on these skills, managers should constantly coach their team in the art of conversation, she said.

Referring to some individuals on her own teams, Ferguson said: “Every conversation we have, I do some informal coaching.”

Go with the flow

One of the most common areas of coaching she suggested was encouraging tech staff to “go with the flow” of a conversation because “everyone has something interesting to say”.

But technical people trend to be very focused on the task in hand, making them prone to over-explaining.

“What you tend to find with technical people is they have quite a narrow focus on their particular area of expertise,” she said. “Don’t go into too much detail, because too much detail is boring. It’s really interesting for us as network tech people, but other people don’t care.”

Where university staff are involved, Ferguson advised being firm and clear to avoid people feeling confused and possibly saying they understand something when they don’t.

“We mollycoddle academics because they can be a bit naïve,” she said. “In fact, we should frighten them to death because users can do a lot of damage.

“Confused people never take action – what you need to do is explain why it is a problem.”

Continuous development

As the technology industry is in a constant state of change, tech teams need continuous training and development, despite the fact that some technical staff can be “set in their ways”, said Ferguson.

“The key to all of this is making staff understand that change is constant – because it is. It’s not something we can avoid at all,” she added.

“We have to encourage them to accept change, and it’s like a drip – you have to drip this stuff that says this is coming, this will change and this is how you have to change your skills.”

At Nottingham Trent University, Ferguson’s technology team are given one-to-one time, as well as encouraged to take a few hours out each week to take part in e-learning training to develop their skills.

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This goes alongside the “baseline competencies” of PowerShell, Azure, Linux and Windows required for team members when they start.

Ferguson said: “The key for me is giving staff time and making it clear they are allowed to take two or three hours a week to change and learn. It has to be done.”

Funding and investing in e-learning programmes is essential, said Ferguson, and it is vital that team members understand they are responsible for their own development.

“With some people, particularly if it’s a psychological thing, you have to just make it very clear,” she said. “What I find is they do tend to follow their leader, like any pack, so you need to behave in a certain way.”

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