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People Development in Tech Companies


May 14, 2021

Many of our clients are in the technical and engineering sectors. Like other organisations, they want to develop their people to be even more engaged and more productive. But developing people in engineering or tech companies can require a very tailored approach.

Why people in tech can be different

As with all organisations, engineering and technology companies employ a wide range of people with different backgrounds, skills and preferences. However, there are some factors which we see again and again in the tech sector.

Soft skill scepticism

In the world of technology, facts and figures are king and queen. There can be reluctance to appreciate psychology and its importance in the workplace. Seeing it as a “pseudo-science” is a common starting point.

The daily focus is on solving problems, on the task in hand. It can be difficult to convince highly task-focused thinkers that skills such as communication, influencing or coaching could be of similar benefit to them.

Read more about soft skill scepticism and how to overcome it.

A preference for introversion

It may feel like a stereotype, but in our experience engineering and tech businesses are predominantly populated by those with a preference for introversion – especially in the operations and specialised engineering functions.

This can be a huge benefit in this sector. Employees who completely focus on the task in hand, often without the involvement of other people, are of great value.

But there can be pitfalls too, particularly when an introverted personality becomes a manager. Even with good people skills, the natural introvert will only want to say the minimum. While they’re comfortable talking about tasks, conversations about the development and wellbeing of their team can feel much more difficult.

We’ve even helped senior managers who were nervous to walk onto the manufacturing ‘shop floor’ because they weren’t sure what to say to people.

This can also mean that many are unwilling to go into management to progress their careers. So, if they don’t want to climb that particular ladder, how can they be incentivised to continually develop and improve their performance?

The discomfort with spontaneous communication, which sometimes accompanies introversion, can also be an issue when dealing with clients. It can even lead the sales team to do everything they can to minimise contact between their client and the engineer working on their project!

Gender skills gap

Despite the huge steps forward in recent years, there is still a male dominance in tech companies. Without the right support, this can make it difficult for organisations to recruit and retain the increasing quantity and quality of women joining the workforce.

The challenges of tech organisational structure

It isn’t just the people who are different in engineering and technology businesses, the structure can also create challenges for people development.

Centres of Excellence vs Product Specialists

These two approaches to managing resources both present their own challenges.

With Centres of Excellence, team members gain a good variety of skills by being allocated to different projects. However, this can lead to a lack of highly specialist product knowledge and therefore the right expertise to, for example, train graduate recruits.

On the flip side, when a specialist route is taken, people can become very wedded to their speciality. They can find it difficult to change, should the company’s focus or resource requirements shift.

Long term projects

Projects in technology businesses can extend into years or even decades. This usually means that the project team members see much more of their project manager than their line manager.

As a result, it can be much more challenging for the line manager to influence performance management, professional development and wellbeing support.

How to approach People Development in tech organisations

So, what are the solutions?

Professional qualifications

The promise of a professional accreditation can be a real incentive to the typical employee in a tech or engineering firm. The IET (Institute of Engineering and Technology) and IED (Institute of Engineering Designers) are popular choices.

However, it’s important to balance “certificate on the wall” qualifications with developing capabilities which will enable them to be an engaged and productive member of the team, as well as a knowledgeable one.

Show your workings

One of the development tools we find most useful in tech companies is Insights Discovery.

“…this was the third time I had completed Insights but the explanation provided by Rob was the most detailed and insightful of all of them.”

Insights Discovery participant from Edwards Ltd

This personality assessment has a strong grounding in science. When dealing with an analytical group of participants, we focus on the mechanics of Insights Discovery, the research and mathematics behind it.

We understand that these trainees aren’t satisfied with simply filling in a questionnaire and then having someone ‘magically’ tell them what their personality is!

The trainer’s approach should allow participants to connect with the tools and, as a result, they will get much more benefit from them.

Find the right duration for training

This is an important consideration in an environment where every minute is accounted for. Sending someone for a development course can be perceived as a double cost – paying for the training AND paying for the time away from their project.

The solution to this differs from company to company, but it’s important that trainers are sensitive to the issues.

In some organisations, booking short-burst training sessions is more manageable, as it limits time away from projects. For others, all day training sessions might be preferrable, so the participants aren’t required to switch mindset from project to training and back again.

Learning in the flow of work

One way to reduce the time booked out for development, is to adopt the principles of “learning in the flow of work”. This means making the right resources available to team members so, when they encounter problems, they can resolve them as they go.

This doesn’t simply mean practical information on how to technically do their tasks. This type of resource can help them prepare for feedback sessions, plan complex explanations to clients or influence a discussion.

The resources made available could be in many forms, which is particularly useful in factory or research environments, where not everyone will have a workstation. It could mean having experts available by phone, more collaborative working in team meetings or accessible knowledge banks. Making specific training courses directly bookable by team members can also support this type of independent learning.

Eradicate gender bias in training

The tendency of the past for training to reflect the male dominance in tech industries is unquestionably wrong today.

From the language used (“Hey guys” is not an ideal opening gambit) to the learning techniques employed, it’s important to take the needs of all trainees into account. Even on courses where no women are present, it’s part of the trainer’s responsibility to echo the principles of equality.

Skills for managers and non-managers

The problem solvers who thrive in tech companies aren’t necessarily natural team managers, yet they often end up in that position. It isn’t always recognised that the skills required to solve a problem aren’t the same as those required to coach someone else to solve that problem.

Providing effective communications training, team development and leadership skills, tailored to the needs of those in tech or engineering jobs, can make a huge difference to the individual’s performance and confidence in a management role.

Even those in non-managerial jobs benefit from improved communications and influencing skills. With the right support, even your most introverted engineer can develop the emotional intelligence, skills and confidence to collaborate effectively with both colleagues and clients.

Developing project managers’ skills

For lengthy projects, where team members will see much more of their project manager than their line manager, it can be beneficial to upskill project managers.

Feedback skills are particularly important. The project manager will have a far clearer view of the performance of the project team members than their line managers will. It’s important, therefore, that they are able to provide useful and timely feedback, either to the line managers or directly to the project team members.

This supports the performance of the individuals within the project team. It can also help to identify dissatisfaction or low motivation. The manager can then take steps to support the team member before this becomes a bigger problem.

The benefits of “pet projects”

Allocating time that your team can dedicate to innovative “pet projects” can be a smart investment. This allows your employees creative time to develop their skills in the way that suits them.

It can also have significant advantages for organisations. Perhaps the most famous example is the Post-it Note. This was developed as a part of 3M’s 15% Culture:

“3M’s unique 15% Culture encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them. While coordinating with their manager to ensure day-to-day responsibilities are still executed, employees get the space to try something new and different, think creatively and challenge the status quo. Whether it’s experimenting with a new technology, forming a special interest group around a fresh idea or finding a new way to run a process, our 15% Culture gives employees in all areas the license to innovate.”

3M website

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