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Why building communication skills in IT is important - and how to do it

Technical knowledge is often considered the paramount asset within the information technology space. Firms do indeed seek out professionals with the fine-tuned programming and systems administration capabilities needed to conceive, design and deploy mission-critical technology. However, many also emphasize soft skills – especially when recruiting for key leadership roles such as chief technology officer.

What non-technical competencies are most in demand? Last year, Bloomberg connected with more than 1,200 recruiters and posed this very question. Over half said communication skills were most important. This might scare IT workers who wish to climb the corporate ladder, as many in the industry are used to working in isolation or functioning within tight-knit teams where interpersonal familiarity eases communication.

Aspiring IT directors and CTOs can improve in this area and gain the skills they need to excel in high-profile positions. But before this work can begin, it is wise to gain an understanding of what it means to be an effective communicator within the technology industry.

Woman speaking in front of crowd.

Key traits of effective communicators

Philosophers and scholars have studied communication for centuries. However, one central figure is known for laying the roadmap for most modern techniques: Aristotle. The Greek thinker covered communication in his landmark work “Rhetoric,” published in 350 B.C., according to the Harvard Business Review. Here, Aristotle outlined the three key features of an effective communicator: ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos embodies professional credibility. For example, an individual who has the sector-specific experience and knowhow to back up their opinions is considered to possess ethos. Pathos is loosely defined as emotional connectivity. People who display pathos have a knack for forming bonds with others, allowing them to drive home their message, no matter how mundane. Logos is logical thinking. Today, professionals who exercise logos pair communications, oral or written, with substantiating evidence such as data. This extra material appeals to the core human need for logic.

Though centuries old, these ideas retain their relevance today, even as ancient thinkers like Aristotle fall further out of the public consciousness. Why? Together, the concepts of ethos, pathos and logos constitute the core of evidence-based thought and communication. As a result, many professionals display these ancient qualities, even if they are not familiar with their origins. This is especially true for leaders within the technology sector.

Organizations in almost every sector are breaking down internal silos and embracing more collaborative operational approaches, meaning personnel in disparate departments have to move beyond their safe zones and form new connections. IT leaders not only participate in this shift, but also facilitate it, working with cross-disciplinary teams to roll out enterprise technology fit for this new environment. All the while, they are managing the core backend systems that support key revenue-driving activities across the business. This workload requires interpersonal talent, as well as a willingness to foster strong relationships via clear, concise communication practices.

Essential communication skills for IT leaders

IT leaders who wish to master intraorganizational communication should focus on developing core competencies that align with common technological tasks, according to TechRepublic. What might those be?

Active listening is possibly the most important communication practice within the IT arena. Leaders in the industry must cultivate connections internally to develop impactful solutions that actually function within the business. This often involves lending an ear to the professionals on the ground floor who will ultimately log into and use enterprise platforms. In fact, this back-and-forth between the IT department and the end-users manning the bullpen often determines adoption success. For example, companies in the process of implementing multimillion dollar enterprise resource planning systems cite internal resistance as the biggest hurdle to implementation, according to one study from Deloitte. Of course, active listening also proves useful for IT leaders when dealing with departmental peers and fellow executives, as this practice can streamline project workflows by reducing the likelihood of time wastage through miscommunication.

Empathy is another communication competency that often proves useful in the IT realm, according to TechTarget. This usually comes into play during internal educational activities. Leaders in the field are required to liaise with non-technical executive peers and employees who may struggle to understand complicated backend systems and operational platforms. Such interactions can prove frustrating for seasoned technology professionals with secure grasps on advanced computational subject areas. In these moments, empathy can have an immense effect, allowing IT leaders to step outside of themselves and see the situation from their colleagues’ points of view. When this unfolds, information flows easier and knowledge absorption improves – two variables that make or break technology initiatives.

Consider empathy in the context of data security. Last year, hackers executed more than 42,000 attacks against business worldwide, according to Verizon Wireless. Over 1,900 of these strikes resulted in major data breaches and more than 80 percent involved the use of stolen login credentials. IT leaders have the ability to address this pervasive problem by empathizing with time-crunched end-users and delivering learner-friendly data security training, rather than hosting condescending, jargon-laden sessions that turn off the network navigators.

Emotional objectivity is central to effective workplace communications, according to TechTarget. Why? Tensions rise when passionate people come together to achieve a common goal, as individuals with disparate modi operandi clash over the roadmap to success. In many cases, heated skirmishes crop up during larger enterprise projects, most of which, in the modern business climate, involve technology of some kind. The IT leaders at the helm of such initiatives must navigate emotional currents and cut through superficial drama to address underlying issues that actually affect project outcomes. This requires objectivity in the face of sometimes harsh interpersonal flair-ups.

These skills, and others, form the basis for effective communications practices in the vein of Aristotle’s centuries-old three-pronged approach, allowing IT leaders to develop and judiciously wield their ethos, while cultivating pathos and deploying logos.

Strategies for developing critical communication competencies

IT leaders can deploy the communication skills mentioned above to catalyze change across the enterprise via well planned and executed technology initiatives that emphasize internal collaboration. However, developing these abilities is often easier said than done – especially for aspiring executives in the industry who have spent more time in front of the computer than they have connecting with peers. Even so, there are workable solutions to this problem.

Reforming existing workplace communication practices is the most obvious answer. Burgeoning IT leaders looking to take this approach should first focus on strengthening their fundamental communication abilities, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Writing is the best place to start. An estimated 35 percent of American workers do not possess acceptable writing skills, according to research from the College Board. This sad state of affairs certainly drags down bottom lines, as the written word constitutes the backbone of collaboration in today’s business world. With this in mind, IT professionals looking to move up into leadership roles should reform their compositional styles and look for ways to boost clarity in emails and other assets. HBR also advises individuals navigating corporate culture to work on their oral communication skills in the same fashion.

On top of improving basic written and oral competencies, IT leaders should look into ancillary activities that support effective communication – namely, preparation. Simply taking more time to formulate and flesh out the ideas that need to be delivered can go a long way, as professionals can come to meetings and other internal interactions with well thought-out concepts that are easy to communicate and explain in the event of questioning. What does this preparation look like? It’s as easy as developing a meeting agenda or putting together frequently asked questions ahead of implementation discussions with executive stakeholders, according to HBR.

In addition to taking the aforementioned steps, aspiring IT leaders can bolster their communication skills via simple exposure. Engaging in relationship building with colleagues can produce real results, as the simple act of speaking with another human being becomes easier over time.

Higher education can address communication skills

Of course, those hoping to climb the ranks in the IT sector can take a more formalized approach and develop their communication skills outside of the workplace via higher education. The online Master of Science in Management Information Systems program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is a great option for IT professionals in need of the interpersonal competencies required to excel within the C-suite. MS MIS degree candidates can bolster their technical skills with courses in project management and security, while developing managerial expertise through concentrated sessions on IT planning and budgeting and leadership. The online MS MIS program at UAB gives aspiring Chief Information Officers the opportunity to learn from industry experts and ultimately create new opportunities for career advancement in the IT field, with a program part of the UAB Collat School of Business.

Are you ready to become a transformative communicator and leader in the IT industry? Connect with UAB today to learn more about how you can get started on your Master of Science in Management Information Systems degree today.

Recommended Readings:
Using LinkedIn To Build Your Personal Brand
How an MS MIS Degree Brings Technology and Business Skills Together

Sources:
1. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2016-job-skills-report/
2. https://hbr.org/2013/01/three-elements-of-great-communication-according
3. https://www.techrepublic.com/blog/tech-decision-maker/the-7-most-important-communication-skills-an-it-leader-should-have/
4. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/mx/Documents/human-capital/01_ERP_Top10_Challenges.pdf
5. http://www.verizonenterprise.com/verizon-insights-lab/dbir/2017/
6. https://hbr.org/2009/04/five-things-leaders-can-do-to
7. http://www.collegeboard.com/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf
8. http://businessdegrees.uab.edu/mis-degree-masters/

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