HR Tech Pros Need Soft Skills, Too

By Dave Zielinski May 28, 2019
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HR Tech Pros Need Soft Skills, Too

​Employers have long valued human resource information technology (HRIT) professionals for the quality and breadth of their technical skills. But in today's team-driven, collaborative work environments, companies are finding that, given the changing realities of their businesses, they need to recruit for and train HRIT professionals in such soft skills as communication, empathy and even persuasion.

A study from LinkedIn and Capgemini, a Paris-based technology consulting firm, highlights the growing need for soft skills in technology roles. The study found the talent gap for soft skills to be greater than for hard skills, with experience in customer-centricity—an approach to doing business that focuses on creating a positive experience for the customer—being most in demand by companies. The worldwide study included responses from 1,200 HR and talent leaders, as well as digital and technology recruiters across industries.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Digital Solutions Pervade the Enterprise

In a recent study from West Monroe, a Chicago-based technology research and consulting firm, 53 percent of business leaders said they're interacting more frequently with technology team members. But of those respondents, 43 percent said they'd also experienced a lack of collaboration when working with these teams, with poor skills in verbal and written communication and a lack of teamwork the most commonly cited problems. These shortcomings can lead to missed deadlines, misunderstandings and product quality breakdowns, the study found.

"More business gets done today via technology than ever before," said Greg Layok, managing director and leader of the technology practice at West Monroe. "Individuals who possess both technical and business skills are hard to find, so organizations are blending teams and requiring more collaboration between people to fulfill the need."

If technologists speak only in "code" and struggle to articulate in plain language the limitations—and possibilities—of technology, business leaders can't relay that information properly to all stakeholders, Layok said.

"These communication problems often require conversations be rehashed, and delays start to happen," he said. "On the flip side, if a business leader doesn't treat the technologist as an equal member of the working team and says, 'I don't understand any of that technology stuff,' they're not being a good partner either. So soft-skill requirements run both ways."

Layok has met with technology leaders who express concern that their information technology (IT) teams may not be able to handle the challenges of digital transformation, "not because they don't have the technical skills, but rather the leadership, project management and communication skills required to execute such large-scale projects aren't as developed as their technical capabilities," he said.

Priyanka Komala, a technology leader for a nonprofit organization, believes that customer-centricity and empathy are often-overlooked but increasingly important traits for IT professionals. "It's not just about being a good coder anymore," Komala said. "When working cross functionally, you need to be good at listening and understanding others' perspectives. IT leaders and their staffs need to be as much technology enablers and educators as they are technology experts today."

HRIT as Company Collaborator

Research shows that HRIT professionals also are interacting more frequently with other parts of the organization in such tasks as configuring cloud software and integrating disparate technology systems. The 2018-19 Sierra Cedar HR Systems survey found that the average organization now has 18 technology-integration touch points between its HR environments and non-HR systems, with larger organizations having even more.

That study also found that the HRIT role is likely to be more responsible for software configuration decisions and data security than general IT or functional roles, giving the position strategic importance and making soft-skill competency in the role vital.

Today's greater focus on the user experience translates into a need for IT workers to develop new soft skills such as empathy, said Jeff Mike, vice president and head of HR research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting.

"IT professionals and software developers have to learn how to fall in love with the end-user, not the technology itself," Mike said. "The days of user error are over. If someone doesn't find an app easy to use within 10 or 15 seconds, they won't use it, and that includes HR apps. At its core, designing or configuring software of that type requires an ability to empathize and see the world from end-users' eyes."

Roy Altman, an HR technology expert and former HRIS manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said he's seeing increased need for collaboration between IT and other business units, a trend that requires technologists have new kinds of soft skills to be effective in those scenarios.

"With the rise of the cloud, there's no longer a need for as much building of software internally as there is a need to configure software that vendors deliver," Altman said. "So rather than writing code, sending it out to end-users and largely being done with the process, IT professionals more often have to work with end-users in agile fashion to prototype and iterate software until those users get what they need."

Closing the Soft-Skills Training Gap

Despite a perceived lack of soft skills among IT professionals, organizations that provide training to help employees develop those skills are in the minority, experts say. The West Monroe study found that 78 percent of companies surveyed factor soft skills into performance evaluations for IT professionals, but only 59 percent provide soft-skills training for those employees.

"This amounts to creating expectations without providing the leadership or guidance to get there, and that's a miss," Layok said.

Layok believes the best way to build soft skills in technologists and IT managers is through hands-on experience. "Employers must give their IT folks the opportunity to get out of their cubicles and into the boardroom, where strategic conversations are being held and business decisions being made," he said. "The more they learn how they can influence those decisions and how their business peers think and talk, the better they'll understand how to leverage their communication skills, conflict management and leadership skills to make them ideal partners."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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