Soft in the headquarters

Many companies will go through considerable time and planning to hone soft skills in their IT workers because without those skills, they say, the organization is only moving at half speed.

The previous two installments of this series spelled out the importance of improved interpersonal communication

if you want to keep your job — or to get hired in the first place. But this is a two-way street. Companies obviously rely on their soft-skilled employees in order to function and it is in their best interest to value these employees and encourage their further development.

As a result, many soft skill programs aren’t mandatory or proscribed, but self-directed. “”It’s not about telling people what to do or hitting them across the bridge of the nose with a 2×4. It’s about helping them see the benefits and find ways for them to make the change happen,”” says Dianne Beattie, CIO for London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont.

The health organization is in the process of setting up an individual development plan for its IT workers to help them achieve a formula Beattie defines as: “”Success equals process change plus enabling technology.

“”As you look at organizations that have to go through a lot of change, the technology piece is probably the easier half of that equation . . . If we’re not using soft skills to help people work that through, it doesn’t happen.””

At the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, job objectives are established by both the manager and the employee and performance is measured on an annual scorecard basis. CIBC’s bonus structure is based on the financial performance of each business unit along with the employee’s personal growth and contributions to the company.

Self assessment is a big part of measuring and improving job skills, says Al Dodington, vice-president of human resources, technology and operations for CIBC. “”People might say, ‘Well, I need to work on my leadership capability,’ for example. Then the employee and manager would talk together about what the different options might be,”” he says.

Competency models are used as a template for employees to measure what their skill levels could be and then soft skill learning programs are tailored to the individual. “”I think there’s recognition that different people need different types of interventions at different points in time,”” says Dodington.

Both CIBC and London Health Sciences have an internal library of soft skills material that employees can check out, but CIBC is moving towards more of an online model for learning. It’s cost effective for the bank while allowing employees to access courses at their convenience and learn at their own pace, says Dodington. Occasionally staff may be sent outside the organization to a college or university to pick up training courses that focus on soft skill improvement.

Don Minnick, a training consultant based in Seabrook, Tex., sees practically every walk of corporate life attend his interpersonal skills lab. IT personnel primarily take the week-long program when they have difficulty fitting into a team environment.

“”They’re often brilliant people who come up with great ideas on their own, but when they’re thrown together with a bunch of people to brainstorm . . . they’re really kind of floundering, because they don’t have experience doing that,”” he says.

Attendees are asked to compete surveys which include feedback from their co-workers and superiors before they start the course. “”We work through that feedback . . . and help them put together a plan for dealing with those areas that have been identified as needing work.””

Then they’re thrown into the deep end. They’re assigned groups of 10 to 12 people to replicate the team environment and meet three times a day. “”We put them in that kind of unstructured environment with a facilitator, but without an agenda and then we pull them out of those meetings at various times during the week and put them in a community session and talk about team development issues,”” he says.

“”They’re learning about how teams work and they’re struggling with exactly those same issues in their own little work teams.””

Once the course is completed, attendees are encouraged to build alumni groups in their own offices for encouragement and moral support. They’re also asked to seek regular feedback from their superiors as to their progress.

London Health has established a fund for skills training, according to Beattie. That may include instructive videos, speakers, literature, or courses like that offered by Minnick. It’s a work in progress, says Beattie, but London Health has created a position to oversee employee development and employees will determine how the funds will be spent. She says her staff “”is all pretty keen on making sure that they’re continuously developing themselves.””

Comment: [email protected]

Neil Sutton reflects on what he’s learned in tomorrow’s editorial. This installment of our Soft Skills series will appear in the Sept. 13 issue of Computing Canada

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