New Digital Strategies Depend on it's soft skills

Steven Burrell, VP for IT & CIO, Northern Arizona University
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Steven Burrell, VP for IT & CIO, Northern Arizona University

Steven Burrell, VP for IT & CIO, Northern Arizona University

Higher education CIOs are transitioning from a focus on operating IT and more towards innovation and reengineering tasks in response to increased market competition for students, improved effectiveness around educational outcomes, and demands for increased efficiencies of operations. In light of these pressures, CIOs seek to leverage their IT organizations to be a transformative force in developing and implementing new digital business strategies for instruction, research, administration, fund raising, and auxiliary enterprises on their campuses. The creation and adoption of technology driven business strategies requires the transformation of IT skills from technical service delivery to designing and implementing technology-enabled, information-rich and transformed business processes. CIOs must incorporate new talent strategies that blend business, education and technology acumen with interpersonal (soft) skills to develop staff that drive the creation and adoptions of new digital business capabilities.

This new hybrid IT professional is essential to driving transformative change around digital business strategy because of the distinctly human aspects of design thinking and innovating around customer needs. The engaged IT organization enables new enterprise-level business strategies in the age of the customer (students, faculty, researchers, staff, alumni, parents) because they are connected to the institution and use a combination of technology skills, business acumen and soft skills to create agility around customer-led and insight-driven innovation. Harvard’s celebrated authority on disruptive innovation, Clayton Christensen, frames this as creating disruptive innovation by identifying “jobs that need to be done” by customers.

  As CIOs seek to transform their institutions with new digital strategies, success depends on the soft skills of the IT team  

Soft skills of technologists are critical to achieving this effective engagement with both internal and external stakeholders. CIOs who want to lead transformation at their institutions as digital strategists must adjust their talent management strategies to include recruiting and developing soft skills of their IT staff. Higher Education human resource officers will be familiar with the more traditional soft skills found in job descriptions such as leadership, communication, teamwork, and presentation skills. These are traditionally found in IT management level roles and above. However, these attributes and others are increasingly needed at deeper levels of the organization among developers, support specialists, technical analysts, and system administrator roles among other members of IT teams.

There are other soft skills once reserved for VP level positions that are increasingly important at all levels of our IT organizations. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen identified five skills that drive innovation: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. These skills require staff to retrain their brain to connect seemingly unrelated concepts, untether their questioning from established norms, challenge assumptions and embrace constraints as a catalyst for out-of-the-box insights, engage diametrically opposing ideas as a stimulus to creative thinking, and observe human behaviors and activities to gain insights about how work gets done and new ways of doing things. Moreover, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it depends on effective social skills, communication, and the interaction of diverse perspectives.

Growing higher education acumen and technical expertise will be important, but developing the personal skills that make such knowledge useful, both in organizations and society, will be even more important. The era of “don’t let the programmers talk to the customer” must give way to a new era in which CIOs enable technology producers to venture out of the developer’s suite and computer operations center to converse with students, faculty and administrators to develop IT influence on digital strategy and drive broad participation for change.

This new IT worker who exhibits these soft skills is much different than the stereotypical introverted personality types IT managers have recruited and engineered into our traditional IT workforce. But if our IT organizations are going to be drivers of change to overcome the inertia in our institutions and subsequently digital enabled strategies, IT staff at all levels will require at least some of these soft skills:

• Communication, questioning and active listening skills to recognize both spoken and unspoken cues, develop cognitive and emotional empathy of other people’s situation to uncover new perspectives, motivations, and ideas.

• Negotiation, political savvy, and conflict resolution skills for understanding others’ motivation, leveraging commonality, and building return-on-relationships for future collaboration.

• Creative thinking and problem solving skills to identify new ways of thinking about the business, combining disparate technology, simplifying complex systems and prioritizing possibilities.

• Change management and influencing skills to manage expectations, promote new ideas, and build strong reputation with people that can influence change.

• Social networking skills to be interesting and interested in business and technology conversations that motivate people to want to share ideas and building diverse coalitions.

• Leadership, followership and teamwork skills to be a good member of a high-performing team, taking responsibility, making effective decisions, setting goals, managing time, and persevering.

• Emotional intelligence skills for knowing what frustrates, motivates, and inspires you and understanding the value you and others bring to the team.

• Trust, positivity and growth mindset skills for embracing mistakes, shedding emotional baggage and blame, forgiving yourself and others, and learning from failures as a way of improving learning, growing, and changing for the better.

• Stress management skills for staying healthy, calm, centered and balanced in challenging situations so you can think clearly, receive constructive input, and take appropriate actions to not only survive, but thrive.

Investing in soft skill has other important tangent benefits including greater job satisfaction and retention of talent. Soft skills programs not only boost workplace morale, they improve workers’ adaptability and flexibility while providing the basis for high-performing teams. It also provides foundational skills and pathways for up and coming millennials and generation Y staff who want to be team contributors and seek rapid upward mobility. The investment in soft skills development strengthens staff intrinsic motivations, connects them with our higher education mission, and allows institutions to compete for and retain top talent. In the absence of such talent, our ambitions to transform higher education are lost to banking, engineering, health care and other high-paying employers.

During more than 30 years of higher education IT leadership, I’ve always held that technology is a profoundly human thing. But given the growing pervasiveness of technology as essential mechanical infrastructure and managing the increasing complexities of technology, IT leadership can sometime lose sight of the fact that technology exists to improve the human experience. Putting people first in the context of technology is no longer a metaphor but a call to action. If we want technology in the higher education context to have a profoundly positive impact on the lives our students and our communities, we must invest in the ability of our IT staff to engage our institutions in profoundly human ways.

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