When soft becomes hard for IT experts

Under-investment in skills training in the IT sector is having a major impact on the UK's ability to compete globally, writes Fiona Bates of training provider...

Under-investment in skills training in the IT sector is having a major impact on the UK's ability to compete globally, writes Fiona Bates of training provider The Inspirational Development Group (IDG).

Lack of technical ability is often cited as a major factor in the skills shortage, but the IDG believes a dearth of softer people skills is making the problem far worse.

A survey by the IT Governance Institute of more than 700 chief executives and chief information officers worldwide found that almost four in 10 reported problems relating to inadequate IT skills.

IDG's Bob Jones says, "It is obviously important that staff have the technical ability to do the job, but at the same time those promoted to managerial roles need to be able to rapidly build high-performing teams.

"If they don't have the skills to communicate and network effectively, the prospects of retaining good staff and ensuring proper succession planning are stark, and this will impact on their ability as a business to work in a global environment."

His views are echoed by Paul Ventisei, head of HSS Technology, the IT division of HSBC Securities Services, which has been putting its key staff through a year-long leadership development programme with IDG. He says the programme has led to substantial changes in both the mindsets and capabilities of employees, with an immediate impact on both individual performances and the target population as a whole.

"As a global organisation with 6,000 staff - of whom 250 are directly technology-based - we wanted to ensure that working relationships were productive and that we could deliver faster, better, cheaper results than our competitors.

"When employees were asked how they felt the company could improve and operate more effectively, every answer centred on the development of soft skills - increased communication, allocation of projects and understanding customer needs."

120 HSS employees are now at various stages of the intensive Fusion programme, which starts and finishes at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, with which IDG has a partnership.

The IDG programme focuses on developing a commercial awareness with an interlinked approach of leadership, followership and partnership, enforcing that to be an effective leader you must also know how to follow, how to build and manage relationships with internal and external partners and be a well-rounded business person, not just a technical expert.

Ventisei says, "The programme is called Fusion because it brings together staff not only from the UK, but also from Hong Kong, China, New York, India, Paris and Bermuda which was vital to open up our international communication channels. Just like the army, they spent a lot of time together which really helps build valuable global networking bonds.

"Through a series of workshops and exercises, participants chose team-based projects in teams that were carefully constructed to cross cultural, age and hierarchical boundaries. They embarked upon a steep learning curve, discovering how to simultaneously build a high performing team and deliver a well executed quick-win payback project.

"All teams were later expected to give a Dragons' Den-style presentation, introducing their project to the senior executives at HSS - these were managers seven levels above the most junior people on the programme. Such a make-or-break presentation demands excellence and ensured that participants approached the projects seriously. Only then could they reach the real crux of teamwork where tensions and passions rise, people become frustrated and issues have to be resolved."

Interestingly, the lack of softer skills in the IT sector is not a problem experienced solely by the UK market our US counterparts struggle too. One US university is addressing the problem early on and in an innovative programme insists that computer science students study a foreign language in addition to the major programming languages. Furthermore, in both course work projects and exams they operate as teams, working on creating technology solutions for customers.

For many already in the industry, however, this need has been identified too late and they continue to lag behind in such vital softer people skills.

Ventisei says, "People in IT don't develop or train in soft skills because they find it hard to justify the expense. With IDG the training is a one-year journey in which people become committed to changing habits and developing projects that pay back the cost of the programme and more the results are not only justifiable but beyond expectation.

"The training and development in the Fusion programme has not only allowed us to work as a high performing team, it has also led to a much reduced level of staff turnover. If people in the IT industry do genuinely want to alleviate the existing skills shortage, we would certainly advocate training in soft skills as an important factor in trying to resolve the problem."


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