Soft skills and hard facts

Last year a survey by the US Society of Information Management listed the top 10 professional concerns of CIOs. The issues are perennial and remain essentially the same in the UK, although they might not be listed in the same order:

Last year a survey by the US Society of Information Management listed the top 10 professional concerns of CIOs. The issues are perennial and remain essentially the same in the UK, although they might not be listed in the same order:

  1.  Attracting, developing and retaining IT professionals
  2.  IT and business alignment
  3.  Building business skills in IT
  4.  Reducing the cost of doing business
  5.  Improving IT quality
  6.  Security and privacy
  7.  Managing change
  8.  IT strategic planning
  9.  Making better use of information
  10.  Evolving CIO leadership role

In today's IT function, it is a given that IT leaders and professionals make an effort to understand the business and ensure the alignment of business and IT strategies. The more forward-looking departments also make the effort to build business skills in IT especially among the leadership.

Despite this, nothing much has changed in terms of the influence and impression that IT professionals wield in the business landscape. IT departments are seen more as a support function than as critical to business. Few CIOs enjoy a position on the main board of the business even though they have contributed extensively to growth and have an end-to-end view of the business that few can boast of.

So why do only a few CIOs and IT directors make it to those lofty positions on the board and in doing so lift the impact and influence of their IT departments to heights that the others can only dream about? The answer to that question may lie in an evaluation of the time allocated to different business activities identified by the CIOs in the survey:

  • 23%  Relationship management with business
  • 16%  Strategy
  • 13%  Relationship management with IT
  • 9%    IT governance
  • 8%    Architecture
  • 8%    Operations
  • 7%    Non-IT
  • 6%    Software development
  • 3%    Other

It is instructive that these stats show that 46% of the working time of the most successful CIOs and IT leaders is spent on the softer aspects of business such as relationship building. Such aspects extensively affect how decisions are made, and influence what gets done and who gets what, when and where. Relating with other parts of the business is time-consuming, but it needs to be done the most effective IT leaders have cottoned on to this and work at it to good effect.

As professionals rise through the IT ranks, they soon realise that IT has become more than a technical pursuit done by reclusive people who cut code and fix faxes. Today IT is no longer merely a service function but critical to business success. IT professionals require an enhanced skill set that embraces all the softer skills and sits side by side with professional and technical skills.

The key soft skills

To gain the recognition they deserve and sit at the table with other functions - accounts, legal, marketing, and sales - IT professionals need to become proficient in the people stuff as well as the technical stuff. At the highest levels the technical issues start to matter less than the soft, people issues:

• Relationships: learn to build win-win relationships with key people - anyone and everyone

• Organisational politics: like it or not, politics are a fact of organisational life, and you need to learn to navigate the stormy waters while maintaining your integrity

• Influencing: learn to master the art and in particular have an impact at board level

• Reputation: learn how reputations are made and what you can do to change yours for the better

The most effective CIOs have been able to change the outlook of their IT departments and increase the impact they have on the business by addressing these areas. Business and IT leaders can enhance the effectiveness of their IT departments by making a conscious effort to develop their key personnel in these areas rather than leaving it to chance that they will acquire the necessary soft skills as they rise through the ranks.

The IT professional now requires an enhanced skill set to develop effective relationships throughout the business with customers, suppliers, bosses, subordinates, colleagues and most importantly the board.

Effective relationships require an appreciation of the motives and drivers behind people's behaviour and the ability to reconcile differences. Outcomes in the political arena depend on subtle interactions and interplays between people.

Each situation will be different and what is successful in one may prove disastrous in the next. To survive in this challenging environment, the IT professional will need to master the art of organisational politics, turning every interaction into a win-win outcome and building effective relationships with everyone.

IT managers and directors ignore the need to develop the softer skills and build relationships both internally and at the business level at their own peril.

Akin Soetan is research fellow at the Information Systems Research Centre, Cranfield School of Management


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