Breaking Down Silos: Soft Skills Required

February 9, 2016
By Joel Dolisy

Silos are products of the inherent lack of ability for teams to communicate with one another. Not because they don't want to, but because they can't. They don't have the communication skills, the soft skills, the same user experiences, the same motivations, experts report.

We've all been in those meetings: 20 or more people sitting around a table engaged in fierce blamestorming sessions over failed or faltering IT initiatives. The stakeholders include the IT development, operations and security teams, as well as leadership, finance and contracting. And let’s not forget the users who require the project to succeed to support mission needs.

While some of these failed or faltering IT initiatives are more visible than others, it’s safe to say that the public, and therefore agency leadership, lack the tolerance to waste time and resources on projects that don’t achieve objectives. Besides the news grabbing stories such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ faltered rollout, there are the all-too-frequent stories of canceled IT projects that waste millions of dollars.

In the end, it’s really all about delivering applications needed to achieve missions, not just managing the IT infrastructure such as servers, networking, virtualization, storage and databases. It's about how the IT infrastructure works together in the context of application performance and user experience that is critical, but such an approach simply cannot be successful with the traditional silos in place.

At the end of the day, performance matters, and the teams involved will need to work together seamlessly to deliver, especially as agencies adopt development and operations, or DevOps, approaches that encourage greater collaboration across teams.

So, what can you do to improve things? Three tips will help build communication and soft skills and break down the silos between the teams involved in delivering IT solutions:

If you want to learn something, try teaching it

The best way to learn something is to explain it to others. Try teaching something; host a brown-bag lunch session. Get an IT leader to explain compliance initiatives or a developer to describe the role of a SCRUM Master. 

Develop a sense of empathy

No, I'm not talking about Star Trek’s Commander Deanna Troi. She was empathic; that's different. I'm talking about developing empathy for the people working in the other silos. How can someone in IT relate to someone in finance? Empathy, that's how. Develop empathy by encouraging the work force to talk to one another. Learn their priorities, concerns and motivations. Spend a day shadowing someone in a different department to better understand their world.

When you develop a sense of empathy, you will find that the nature of your conversations changes for the better, and that’s what it’s going to take to increase agility and innovation.

Get involved

Many govieernment groups exist and can be found through places like LinkedIn or GovLoop, or associations like AFCEA and the Professional Services Council. Attend an event or participate in an online forum. Do something because it is better than doing nothing. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you have to connect, share and learn how other agencies tackle similar troubling issues. I’d love to connect with some of the innovative 18F folks at the General Services Administration, so named because it is headquartered at 18 and F streets in Washington, D.C. They push the envelope on acquiring and delivering digital services. 

No doubt people mastering hard skills will have a place in IT somewhere. But hard skills have a ceiling; you can find someone else with similar skills for a similar price. Good communication and soft skills have no ceiling and have more value than hard skills, which I contend create silos. Soft skills topple those silos and for those who want to survive in the application-centric future of IT, they're simply a must.

Joel Dolisy is chief information officer at IT management software provider SolarWinds in Austin, Texas. 

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