In our last blog “Key Criteria of SMEs to Select IT-Consultants or Service Providers” we mentioned the role of soft skills when selecting IT-Service providers. Although hard criteria (like skills or price) play a vital role, especially for small of mediums sized companies (SMEs) soft factors play a significant role as well. We think it´s worth looking deeper into this topic and found that it has not been discussed very often or in depth so far.
Role of IT service provider/consultants
When approaching an IT- or software-development-project, SMEs face three main challenges: time constraints, financial constraints and expertise constraints. We think that in particular two issues regarding constrains in time and expertise are relevant in this context
- Decisions in SMEs are often only CEO driven; they often do not find the time to involve their IT or sometimes lack the motivation to do so
- SMEs try to avoid or postpone IT-projects and investments whenever possible, hence do not spend time or resources to build up know-how and a “knowledge barrier” might arise (one option of an expertise constrain)
In response to this knowledge barrier, they need a mediating entity to help them lower the barrier and make it easier for the SME to adopt and implement IT-projects or software developments without extensive in-house expertise.
Another thought in terms of expertise constraints is that SMEs sometimes lack important IT know-how due to small or even non-existing IT-departments, meaning that they need an IT-consultant. Furthermore, SMEs tend to hire generalists instead of specialists. These external generalists often act as mediators between CEO and the IT-department. They help to compensate the lack of know-how and often help the CEO to understand the impact of IT. They mediate or arbitrate between CEO and IT and therefore require social- and other soft-skills.
Important soft skills
Literature mentions a lot of social/soft skills ranging from self confidence, negotiation skills to empathy. According to literature they can be clustered in to 4 to 7 groups depending on the source ranging from the expected communication/teambuilding skills to more personality related ones like drive or self starting attitude. A more or less complete clustering can be found at ag.purdue.edu
Given the challenges that we described above, we think the main soft skills for an IT-consultant in a client situation at a SME are more or less interpersonal i.e. communication related. Since they need to help their customer to understand an often complicated IT-related problem or to mediate between colleagues in order to deal with conflicts etc, the ability to express oneself (in writing and orally) and to explain things are quite important from our point of view. Still, this may be subject for discussion since soft skills imply dealing with perception, attitude and even emotions. This is highly dependent on the individual and difficult to structure especially in IT- and software-development-projects.