Why can’t we all just get along?

The frustration in Paul Benvenuti’s voice reaches a peak when he starts talking about users.

Benvenuti, systems administrator for CMP Metal Products, based in Chateauguay, Que., is one of only two IT troubleshooters

for the company’s 150 technology users.

“”When they ask for something it’s just, ‘I need this installed on my computer, can you come in and install it now?’ They don’t understand there’s licensing involved,”” he says. “”In order to communicate these issues to them, I always end up going into a level where I just see their eyes glaze over,””

There are probably thousands of stories out there just like Benvenuti’s: users who just don’t get it and IT staffers who quickly run out of patience. The situation has even been lampooned on the sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live. You may have seen “”Nick Burns, your company’s computer guy,”” played by SNL regular Jimmy Fallon. Nick is an unkempt, abrasive man — the stereotypical IT nerd with perfect knowledge of every keyboard shortcut. He preys on ignorant users, solving their technology problems in seconds and ends every exchange with a sarcastic “”You’re welcome!””

Nick Burns may be a walking technology encyclopedia, but he probably wouldn’t get hired if he went out into today’s job market. Stephen Mill, a consultant with job training firm RHI Consulting, says he’s seen a shift in the last few years away from pure technical skills as more scenarios within companies call for those “”computer guys”” to interact with other employees and the outside world. Welcome to the softer, gentler IT department.

“”From a hiring perspective, right now if you have two candidates, both technically sound — even if one person is ahead in technical skills, the person with the better communication skills will get the job,”” says Mill. “”It’s come down to that. It was never really a criterion for an IT department and today it is.””

In recent years, soft skills have become the No. 1 differentiator for job applicants in all types of industries. A book search on Amazon.com for “”interpersonal skills,”” for example, returns 412 results with titles for a litany of professions. Last year, CompTIA released a study called The Ongoing Crisis in IT Management in which North American CIOs identified understanding user problems (79 per cent) and having patience (76 per cent) as being very important skills for IT professionals who supply day-to-day support. In contrast, less than half of the 250 CIOs surveyed said knowledge of software (45 per cent) and hardware (34 per cent) was very important.

Benvenuti says a little training for his users on the nature of his profession would help alleviate some of his frustration. “”Maybe basic awareness or training for the service-receivers as to what exactly it means to do what we do.”” But he also recognizes that he might benefit from soft skills training himself. “”IT people (need) to realize that those that are benefiting from the (IT) services might not have a technical background,”” he says. “”Maybe (we need) to communicate more in lay terms the ideas that are going on in our heads.””

Right now, there is no such training available to Benvenuti. He says his company sees the value of communications training, but for the most part sales people and product teams — those most obviously on the front lines — are typically the recipients.

Mill points out that sometimes IT personnel are sales people, too. Marketing and sales executives bring IT along to sales pitches to demonstrate products and answer technical questions. He adds that customers, particularly online customers, interact far more with IT than with sales people. “”That’s another reason why the communication has to be really sound. You’re dealing with people who are actually driving your revenue now.””

At the moment, it’s a case of many employers demanding those communication skills of their IT workers, but not necessarily backing it up with investment in the relevant training, according to Julie Kaufman, skills and training analyst with Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd.

That will change, says Kaufman, and there already hundreds of companies in Canada putting their money where their mouth is. In part two of this series, Sandra Milloy, director of IT for law firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, and IT veteran Jackie Santos discuss their approaches to soft skills in the workplace.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

Our three-part Soft Skills series will also appear in Computing Canada, beginning with the August 9th issue

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