Over 20 years ago Colin Palmer, chairman of a British Computer Society Task Group, made the following observation on some key research into IT-led change programmes by the Oxford Institute of Information Management:
“They noticed that in all the significant cases of successful implementation of information technology for competitive advantage or for achieving major change in organisations, there seemed to be a person at the heart of the development who displayed certain experience and characteristics. These were: an understanding of the business and what was required within the business, combined with a technical competence that enabled them to understand what was required in technical terms, including the scope of what was being planned. In addition to this, they displayed two types of organisational skills. They knew how to get about the business, and this implied that they knew the business and the people around it well, and they knew how to get things done, possessing a set of excellent social skills - to listen, understand, negotiate and persuade".
Originally called "hybrid managers" (later "T-shaped people"), these people who possessed a rounded skillset that included business and personal as well as technical competencies, were identified as being the critical catalysts in successful change projects. However despite the early enthusiasm, by the late 1990s the hybrid as a change management concept seemed to have fallen by the wayside. Yet, take a look at the current job adverts for any senior professional role in change or IT and the chances are that "commercial awareness" and "influencing and persuasion" will feature as highly as professional specialisms in the list of essential skills required of the candidate.
Developing breadth and depth
Organisations, now more than ever, want people who can bring both breadth and depth of expertise, and collaborate successfully with others in multi-disciplinary change project teams. The last thing they want is "I-shaped people": specialists who have useful skills but can’t connect with others. However, breadth without depth is equally undesirable. In the early years of our professional careers, the focus has to be on gaining the deep technical competencies required by our roles. For example, John Lassiter is acknowledged as a great creative leader for Pixar, but first he had to develop his credibility and expert knowledge by working in the trenches as an animator.
As change and IT experts, working in the second decade of the 21st century, we therefore have to take a balanced view of our professional development if we want our projects to succeed and our careers to progress. Personal and business skills do not currently feature highly in many professional certification programmes although there are exceptions such as the BCS Diploma in Business Analysis and the newly-launched Expert BA Award. However, to gain the fully rounded skill set, the onus is on us as individuals to look at ways to develop these skills.
Improve your influencing skills
Download a free chapter from Philippa Thomas's book: The Human Touch.
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In our recent book The Human Touch: personal skills for professional success, we present a selection of the most useful, practical models and frameworks for the change/IT professional, across a range of personal and business skills including influencing and commercial awareness.
These two latter skills are a powerful "superpower" combination. In modern organisations, with fluid teams and hierarchies, relying purely on the authority vested by your role to get things done is fast becoming a redundant concept. So influence and persuasion are your keys to success: When armed with a clear positive answer to “what’s in it for me?” people will usually do the things you ask of them willingly.
The big picture
However, with senior stakeholders your ability to influence will come as much from the business acumen you can demonstrate, as your social skills. If you can show that you can see the ‘big picture’, make sense of economic and market trends, interpret financial data and understand the potential impact of this information on the way your organisation delivers its products and services to customers, your credibility with the boardroom grows exponentially.
Becoming this rounded T-shaped professional and successful agent of change is not just a simple matter of attending a series of training courses. It also relies on a lifelong curiosity and commitment to personal learning and research. A good place to start developing the ‘personal’ and ‘business’ dimensions of your skillset is to start by simply talking to your colleagues in other functions.
Find out what makes them tick and what frustrates them. Invite their comment on your own work. You will be pleasantly surprised by the new perspectives offered and the deeper insights you gain, which are vital to successful organisational change programmes.
Philippa Thomas has specialised in learning and development for 20 years. With both commercial and operational experience of providing a range of IT training services to blue-chip organisations in the private and public sector, Philippa gained a unique insight into the people skills challenges arising from business change.