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Breaching the IT soft skills quagmire

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 8, 2014
Being hard to define and perpetually dumbed down, so-called 'soft' skills wind up in the proverbial skills caboose. New data says that's the wrong approach.

Whatever you think about digital transformation - and we certainly carry on about it plenty here - the skills issues remain an underestimated stumbling block.

I hit on the Enterprise UX skills gap recently, but modern enterprise projects are exacerbating skills gaps across several dimensions, including: UX and iterative design skills, business process know how, and soft skills savvy.

Given that soft skills are hard to define and perpetually dumbed down by 'be a team player' clichés, so-called 'soft' skills wind up in the proverbial skills caboose at the expense of featured 'hard' skills like big data, which got the top billing in Dice's 2014 tech salary survey.

New data on soft skills relevance

Recently, I ran across an enlightening report by Wisegate, Hello, I Must Be Going: Hard Facts on Soft Skills, which gave the soft skills issue more clarity. Wisegate surveyed 'hundreds' of IT professionals to better understand the value placed on IT and the skills priorities of IT pros. With 90 percent of the respondents having worked in IT for more than ten years, this was a view from seasoned professionals who have seen a few waves if tech hype come and go.

Based on the data, Wisegate's position is:

  • IT is being taken more seriously by the business.
  • IT professionals realize they need to 'integrate and become part of the business,' but it's a work in progress to get there.
  • Skills exposure and fulfilling work outranks money as a job motivator.
  • It's a transitory workforce - 2/3 of those surveyed expect to move on to another employer within two years in pursuit of career progression.

Hard to believe it was once feared that outsourcing would relegate IT to distant shores and job-killing operational efficiency metrics. Surveys like Wisegate's paint a different picture - one of IT pros who grasp their strategic importance, but also their insufficient skill sets.

Here's a graphic contrasting the perceived relevance of IT in smaller and bigger organizations:

job taken seriously

The variation in perceived importance of IT based on company size is not surprising, but the real takeaway is the significance placed on IT by those who responded. While in some cases they were critical of their company culture as a whole (only 23 percent rated their company culture as 'extremely healthy', and almost as many, 21 percent, rated their culture as 'somewhat sick'), it does not seem IT has a credibility problem amongst those surveyed.

But a skills problem is another matter entirely. Thus I was struck by the startling dominance of soft skills in the skills needs of those surveyed:

wisegate skills gap

We have to go about ten down this list get to anything resembling an IT skill, and even then, the first IT skills that show up are management-related.

While this does NOT mean that IT folks are indifferent to tech skills trends like analytics/big data, cloud/virtualization and so on, it does tell us something about what IT professionals see when they look in the skills mirror. And what they see is a need to be of value to the business, NOT huddling in a cubicle.

Another question from Wisegate drilled this home:

When asked, 'If you had to choose, which would you say is more important, business
knowledge or technical know-how for you to move forward in your career?' a remarkable 87% of survey respondents chose 'business knowledge.'

This leads us to two problems, however. One Wisegate identified: IT pros aren't sure where to go to get this know-how. When asked where they go for advice on developing their careers, varied answers included mentors, spouses, managers  and external peers. But another problem comes up first: before you go about obtaining these 'soft skills,' they need a precise definition. And here we have plenty of difficulty.

Which soft skills make the enterprise difference?

Most pieces on soft skills are high on people skills and vague on enterprise specifics. Some years ago, I defined the soft skills umbrella as:

I think of soft skills as the ability to mix as effectively in the plant break room as the corporate boardroom. We don't all need to be able to get in front of the dreaded 'white board,' but we do need to be able to get across the business case for what we are currently doing. Another misconception about soft skills is that you are stuck with whatever skills you have in that area. That's not the case.

We can roll up a good chunk of soft skills in the 'become an advisor to the business' objective - that includes the skills cited by Wisegate above, e.g. influencing others, team leadership, critical thinking, project management, negotiating, delivering presentations and so on. Another 'top IT soft skills' list adds in mentoring and creativity - the latter of which might be better expressed as creative problem solving, which is added by another list that also cites strategic thinking and time management. One comprehensive list outlines no fewer than 28 soft skills.

Plenty of time could be wasted debating which of these skills are truly 'soft', and none of us has bandwidth for that. But - here are my underrated enterprise soft skills:

1. User requirements gathering: you'll never see this on an IT soft skills list - a huge oversight. Proper understanding of user needs, and dialogue on how those needs can map into IT solutions, has never been more pressing. There is a real art to requirements gathering. Why? Because users aren't always able to clearly articulate what they need most, and even if they do, IT folks miss key points in translation. In a podcast I did in 2010, soft skills expert Guy Couillard went into some detail on why requirements gathering falls short and how 'requirement elicitation' is the real difference-maker because it involves a much more dynamic conversation than simply making a list of what the user wants off the top of their head.

2. Process improvement know-how: industry-focused process expertise is a big differentiator for the modern IT pro. You can't really have an effective requirements gathering session without a handle on the processes that are either being discarded or enhanced by new installations. End-to-end process knowledge like order-to-cash and procure-to-pay might seem exotic for the typical IT professional, but those who have it stand out from those who don't. Caveat: you have to keep up - reading a ten year old book on discrete manufacturing could hurt more than help given the impact of sensor technology and enterprise manufacturing intelligence, etc.

3. Political smarts and conflict resolution: unfortunately, a byproduct in becoming involved with the business is navigating the political minefield that entails. This is no simple task because that quagmire can be deadly indeed. But: the good news is that there are courses that can be taken. Example: I took a mediation intensive early in my career that had big value in helping me see how adversaries can be guided towards common ground before you end up scorched earth. We also trained on how conflicts can (sometimes) be diffused with an emphasis on shared outcomes. Even learning a foreign language can pay huge dividends; cultural differences can sink projects if expectations are not properly communicated.


Taking results from one survey does not lead us to a conclusive verdict. Example: in my latest research, I was unable to find a direct link between soft skills competency and IT salary increases, aside from the obvious management tier promotions. Sadly, there's not much data on how soft skills improved project success rates - though we do have a growing body of work linking end user competency to project success.

Soft skills, regardless of definition, are just one component of the skills that enterprises should be fostering. Digital literacy will continue to reward those who keep their tech skills ahead of the curve. Arguably, devops or NoSQL skills, just to pick two, are even more important to today's IT pro than heading to Toastmasters.

But when today's enterprise projects require a much more inclusive design process and continual IT-business dialogue, the 'soft skills' conversation has clearly shifted from nice-to-have to: better get something done about it, and pronto.

Image credits: little happy boy jumping in puddle © Aliaksei Lasevich -, Wisegate survey graphics provided via express permission of Wisegate.



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