Hard and Soft Skill Sets
Enterprise decision-makers have to understand the technology, as well as the organizational and procurement factors involved in using it.
The technology that runs enterprise communications and adds value to it (while also adding its value to other applications) is more complex than ever. Zeus Kerravala makes this point in a recent No Jitter post, in describing the increasing challenge of management and troubleshooting. In the old days, "There was a PBX, phone and a cable that connected them. If there was a failure, it was one of those three things." Today, Zeus notes, "Virtualization, wireless technologies, the cloud, mobility and converged networks give us capabilities far beyond anything we've had before."
Not only do communications professionals need to know about and deal with these enabling technologies; they have to partner with other IT teams and business units throughout the process of deciding whether and how to procure products and services in these areas. That requires a level of organizational flexibility and openness--something that the old-time telecom people first had to embrace when voice first started running on IP. Those who saw the new world as a career opportunity were rewarded.
Some of the critical non-technical skills required in the new world aren't really new at all to diligent communications folks--in particular, the need for serious negotiating skills. At the old Business Communications Review magazine, our back-page columnist Dick Kuehn used to remind readers and consulting clients alike that it's not the biggest deals that garner the biggest discounts--it's the deals struck by the best negotiators.
When Dick was writing in the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s, the big-ticket item was telco voice and data services. Data's still a big cost, obviously, but landline voice is no longer the hill the telcos are willing to die on when it comes to negotiating pricing. That distinction now belongs to wireless voice, which now can represent nearly half or more of an enterprise services spend, as noted in this article by Justin Castillo of Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby (LB3) law firm. And as Justin points out, the telcos are very much up to their old tricks when it comes to finding creative ways to keep you paying more than you need to for this indispensible service.
Justin's bottom line is the same as Dick Kuehn's back in the day: Negotiate hard. To do that, you've got to know exactly what's in the contract (which too many enterprises barely read, one telco exec told Justin). And you've got to know what you have already, what you need, and--critically--how long you've got to make a deal. If a telco can stall you (or if you choose to stall yourself), you have no room to negotiate with the clock ticking down on a service you can't afford to see shut off.
I was thinking about describing these competencies like negotiating contracts, partnering with internal teams, and the like as "soft skills" to distinguish them from the "hard skills" of being able to run real-time traffic across an IP infrastructure. But there's nothing "soft" about either skill set, and if you want to rise in your organization, you need both types--and your enterprise needs them from you.
That's why when Fred Knight and I sat down to start planning Enterprise Connect Orlando 2014, we immediately started talking about how we could address the multiple layers of skills that today's enterprise decision-maker needs. We're talking to the LB3 folks and others about crafting content that helps you build and wield these skills--even as we continue to offer deep technical content in a world that's seeing new technologies emerge at an unprecedented pace. We think enterprise communications requires a multi-faceted skill set, and we're going to try and deliver content that helps you develop that skill set. Watch this space as our program develops, and please drop us a line with your suggestions.