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IT: It's Not Just About Technical Skills Wed 11 Nov 09

Why interpersonal skills may be more important now.

While perusing the online versions of some of the more well-know information technology journals recently, I was surprised to find one that had quite a few stories on the stupidity of users. While these stories ostensibly were presented as humor, they also represent a dark side of IT behavior: The IT guys really are the smartest guys in the room, and users are dumb and annoying.

A closer reading of some of the stories shows the fallacy of this: Users were having problems, and the IT person was more concerned with showing his superiority than in providing customer service. This type of stereotypical behavior has long been an impediment to IT's success and acceptance in the corporate world.

The good news is that this attitude among IT workers isn't nearly as prevalent as it used to be. We've made great strides in improving customer service. These stories, however, show that our job is not complete. There is more to do.

The biggest part of developing the right attitude is realizing that it isn't all about us. The IT guys really may be the smartest guys in the room, but nobody cares. It is more about what gets done than about what you know. It is more about making the team (IT and business) successful than it is about individual accolades.

Information technology has become more self service. It used to be that you had to get everything through the IT department. IT built the databases, and you could only get the data out or get it analyzed by asking IT to do it for you.

Over time, the role of IT has shifted from knowledge provider to knowledge facilitator. We no longer extract and analyze data. Instead we provide tools enabling users to do this themselves.

With this shift in roles, IT support must shift from doing to enabling. This means IT has to focus on understanding the user's needs and providing training and tools. It also means understanding the business in order to suggest ways to use technology that meets needs. It involves, dare I say it, empathy, a word not always associated with IT.

Being successful in this role depends on personal skills, such as:

  • Being a good listener to learn what the user needs and a willingness to listen completely without jumping in with the answer.
  • Being a good interviewer to draw information from our users.
  • Being good at explaining and teaching.

These skills can be as important and perhaps more important than raw technical skills.

Accordingly we, as IT leaders, need to change our perspective. We need to work to develop these skills in our people. Technical ability alone is no longer enough. We cannot continue to hire people and do personnel evaluations based solely on technical skills. Likewise, the training we provide has to go beyond just technical training.

When we do personnel evaluation or are hiring, we should include our user community in the process. Having our users interview candidates can provide some useful feedback on how the candidate relates to people outside IT, how well they communicate, how well they listen.

Users also can provide valuable insight into just how good our customer service really is. Getting this insight is extremely important for personnel evaluations. Perhaps we should rate this just as highly as technical skills.

If we expect people to change, we also have to help them. Rather than sending people to a software conference or the latest programming class, perhaps we should send them to classes on team dynamics or finance for non-financial people.

As the role of IT has shifted over time, the skills of our people need to shift, and we as IT leaders need to be actively involved in making this happen.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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