Bill Gates needs to brush up on his people skills

gates-bill-ms-05-120.jpgCome on – did Bill Gates really think anyone would say knowing how to use a computer is more important than teamwork?

In the results of a Microsoft-commissioned survey of 500 U.K. board members this week, the company found that IT skills ranked seventh. Outranking technology prowess were such trivial matters as initiative, analyzing and problem solving, verbal communication and personal organization. Anyone who’s going through a performance review this time of year is probably hearing a lot about those six areas, but I can’t imagine many of them are losing their annual salary increase because they make poor use of e-mail.

“Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too,” Bill Gates said in an op-ed piece that appeared on the BBC’s Web site to accompany the survey results. There’s a lot about the way that sentence is structured – with the “too” at the end – that explains his thinking and that of the IT industry in general. Perhaps because he has spent much of his life building the world’s largest software company, Gates can’t help but see business activities through an IT prism. But for most employers, interpersonal skills are not an adjunct to handling a database or running a spreadsheet program.

It might have made more sense for Microsoft to have considered what it was asking. If this had merely been a survey of IT managers, you might have expected technical expertise to rank higher (though likely the top choice would have remained where it is). This was a survey of board-level directors, however, people who, if you’re lucky, see IT as strategic set of tools but maybe not a skill set in itself. As Gates correctly says, “One of the most important changes of the last 30 years is that digital technology has transformed almost everyone into an information worker.” As IT gets more embedded into everyday workflow, how do you single out what’s purely an IT skill for the average employee?

On a grand level, I suppose you could evaluate workers based on how often they call upon the IT department or help desk to deal with software system errors, lost passwords or excessive bandwidth constraints. You could also flip it around and grade them according to how often they’ve reached out to new technologies to improve the way they work, whether it’s something Web 2.0-based or something that would require some IT department setup or development. Any efforts they make in that regard, however, would depend upon their initiative, personal organization and ability to problem solve (not to mention sweet-talking various other parts of the business). You need all the other IT skills, in other words, to hone your IT skills.

Yes, you probably need to know your way around software to work well in the 21st century, but that comes with the right training. Those other skills? We’re still figuring out how best to teach them.

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