The new soft skill: virtual competence

Recent research from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, conducted by Associate Professor Nicole Haggerty and recent Ivey graduate Dr. Yinglei Wang, suggests managers pay attention to virtual competence if they want their teams to be successful at online communication.

Virtual teams are still struggling to be effective, according to Haggerty. “They often struggle with issues of communication, trust and knowledge of how to use the tools in addition to the tasks they are completing,” she said.

But those who exhibit virtual competence have the skills and knowledge they need to conduct work in virtual environments, whether with their colleague in the cubicle next door or a global team, she said.

A term coined by Haggerty and Wang over the course of their research on what employees need to know in order to work effectively in virtual settings, virtual competence consists of three skill sets that work in tandem.

Virtual social skills describe an individual’s capability to build online social relationships; virtual media skills are the actual capabilities in using a range of tools and features; virtual self-efficacy is simply self confidence, she explained.

“The reason self confidence turns out to be important is because it gives people the motivation to persist when they have difficulties and it gives them the confidence to explore new features, new tools and new ways of doing things,” Haggerty said.
While employees need the skills, the research mostly sends a message to management who create those opportunities or tasks that require employees to collaborate. “They need to have at least a sensitivity for what they are asking people to do and therefore what is it they must know to be effective,” she said.

While any level employee would benefit from having the skill set, according to Haggerty, not every employee needs it. “The crucial thing is for organizations to know the kinds of demands they are placing on their employees when they are asking them to do work,” she said.

The more a firm needs its people to collaborate online and work with remote locations and make use of mobile devices like laptops and PDAs, the more they need to look at this ensemble of skills and how they can help their employees develop it, she said.

One way of developing these skills is to use online social networking in your personal life. In their research, Haggerty and Wang found that people learn valuable skills using those tools, and those skills can transfer into the workplace setting.

This includes how to communicate using text as a primary medium, different techniques for information searching, getting used to being available online and how to explore different applications.

So the question is, should you allow those things at work or should you encourage people to use them but outside the workplace setting, said Haggerty. “The answer is it depends on what they’re trying to accomplish,” she said.

What Haggerty’s research does is give some credibility to something that organizations are trying to squash, said Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Ltd. “Organizations need to know that those skill sets are out there, that they actually are legitimate skills and they can’t be leveraged,” she said.

“Skill sets are not just about what you learn formally on the job,” said Perrier-Knox. “There are things you can bring to the job and there are some skill sets that can’t be formally trained. Some people end up discovering them on their own and end up bringing them to the table.”

IT workers would likely exhibit higher levels of virtual competence than those from other industries, according to Perrier-Knox, simply because “there’s no fear of computers.” IT workers don’t have that fear of technology, such as worrying about breaking something or messing something up or doing something they shouldn’t be doing, she added.

But there is a line between personal and professional virtual competence, she pointed out. Personal use of social networking sites can enhance your familiarity with the basic skill set, but this doesn’t necessarily teach you the cultural rules or norms of the organization you are working for, she said. “It doesn’t teach you professionalism.”

Using Facebook, for example, gives people some practice in thinking about what messages they want to deliver. This includes deciding what gets posted, what needs to be communicated, what needs to be torn down and what needs to be archived, said Perrier-Knox.

“With a Facebook page, that owner must make decisions about what content is going to be there and what isn’t – the same kind of decision as somebody working on a virtual project,” she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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