IT departments used to be insulated from the rest of the organization, so that technical employees collaborated and communicated with other technical employees far more than they did with non-technical employees. However, IT is very integrated into most organizations now, and the ability to work effectively with employees across departments is more critical.

In fact, according to Kevin Rock, senior director of products and programs for New Horizons Computer learning Centers, of IT projects that fail, 85 percent fail because of “poor communication, interpersonal and leadership skills” rather than poor technical skills. As a result, organizations are seeking to develop or source soft skills training that will engage and drive results for their technical professionals.

Soft Skills and Their Role in IT

Many learning leaders believe the term “soft skills” is a misnomer. “This kind of self-awareness growth is hard,” Rock says, “so perhaps ‘hard skills’ would be a better moniker.” Jennie Marshall, learning program director for leadership, management and business skills at QA, suggests the terms “personal and people skills” or “interaction and effectiveness skills.”

Whatever you call them, though, soft skills are competencies that support a person’s ability to develop and maintain relationships and interact with others. They include listening, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, decision-making, problem-solving and goal-setting. Marshall believes that “technical and ‘soft’ skills go hand in hand for today’s workforce” – which is clear when you consider how much technology and people impact each other and the organization. IT professionals especially must be able to communicate information simply and effectively to their organizations.

Soft Skills Training for IT Professionals

As with any training topic, the best delivery method largely depends on the organization and the learners. Soft skills training is traditionally delivered in the classroom, with activities such as group discussions and tailored to a group of learners who are at about the same level. More and more, soft skills training can also be effectively delivered through e-learning or virtual instructor-led training, especially for IT professionals, who are so comfortable on the computer.

Rock says the key to effective and engaging soft skills training for technical professionals is having a facilitator who can “create an environment of interaction, trust and authenticity” in which learners can interact with each other honestly and feel the support they need to go outside their comfort zone. The credibility of the facilitator and the content is also critical, Marshall says. Make sure learners understand the importance of what they’re learning and how they will be able to apply their new soft skills on the job. Rhonda Brotherton, learning solutions program manager at ExecuTrain, adds that trainers should make “the learning goals as personal as possible.”

“The soft skills path,” Rock says, “is one in which the student is being asked not to memorize a new skill,” which IT professionals are often more accustomed to, “but to modify and expand their current behavior for the betterment of self, and by adoption and integration of these new behaviors, the betterment of all those around them.” Set expectations ahead of time; let learners know that they are embarking on personal and professional growth.

Measuring Return on Investment

Soft skills are difficult to measure, though Brotherton points out there are surveys and assessments that measure them. The perennial difficulty of attributing performance improvements and business results to training applies here.

Still, there are some ways to at least start to document soft skills and their improvement. “Hard numbers do change as individuals and teams become more connected and work in a more effective and efficient manner,” Rock says, “and as the leaders of those teams practice the new competencies they have uncovered.” He recommends measuring culture indicators at set time periods, such as three months and six months after training.

Instead of “return on investment,” Marshall recommends considering “return on expectation.” Before training, stakeholders should “identify what [they] expect to happen as a result of learning.” Then, measure post-training to see if those expectations were met.

It’s a changing world, with changing organizations. “Just bringing the technical side to the party doesn’t cut it anymore,” Marshall says. Follow these tips to make sure your IT professionals develop strong interpersonal and leadership skills through effective soft skills training and development.

The growing emphasis on “people skills” is one of the trends identified for 2018 in the November/December 2017 issue of Training Industry Magazine. Read more here.