Most organizations think it’s a technical training issue. After all, web meetings, distance learning, and webinar tools are technology. If people know how to use the tools, they’ll use them—and we can get on with the job at hand.

But do they? More importantly, do your managers and team leaders use those tools as ways to build teams, collaborate effectively, and get their project work accomplished? Heck, do they use them at all? Often, adoption of these tools is less than half of what’s projected when IT finally decides to roll them out.

Technology-first approach

One of the many paradoxes of the modern workplace is that leaders can’t use such soft skills as influencing, active listening, and presenting in the ways we’ve always used them. Instead, they need to use technology. Yet that technology seems to get in the way of using time-honed people skills.

Many organizations take a “technology first” approach. If people know how to use a tool, they’ll apply it to bolster what they already know how to do. Maybe they offer training when they roll out the tool, but more often, they use online tutorials and recorded webinars. (That’s NOT training, but it’s another battle and blog post for another day.) Yet people don’t use the tools at anything close to the anticipated rate, and not nearly as effectively as hoped.

Soft skill approach

As I’ve been told many times, a soft-skill first approach is not always the answer either. What good is traditional stand-up, presentation skills training when three-quarters of your daily work is done over the phone or via web meeting?

If we stop to think about it, this is not a binary equation. If people don’t possess good influencing, listening, and other people skills, all the technology in the world won’t make them better leaders. In fact, as someone told me in class once, on webinars you get to take a boring, uninspiring message and broadcast it to a bunch of people who can put the phone on mute and answer email while you talk.

On the other hand, technology does often get in the way. Many people with great people skills are frustrated by the lack of human connection. They don’t like web meeting tools, they don’t want to use them, and they’re frustrated trying to use them. Therefore, they aren’t very effective.

And those are the people who want to use their soft skills. If a manager isn’t comfortable communicating with people, avoids confrontation at all costs, and doesn’t enjoy coaching conversations, communication technology gives them all kinds of ways and excuses to avoid (well, you know) communicating.

The missing link

What’s missing is context. Why do we need these tools in the first place? Because without them, we can’t talk, listen, collaborate, or work together over distance.  If you aren’t comfortable with their use, you won’t be able to leverage your people skills.

Why do soft skills matter so much? Because unless you proactively communicate, listen well, and bridge the distance that separates you work doesn’t get done, and it sure isn’t as much fun.

We need both sets of skills. Where new technology affects peoples’ work, we need to learn how those tools will help us in our work, and what we need to know to get the most from them. But technology by itself is an inert object. If you are avoiding that conversation with Bill in Dallas, it’s not so much a barrier as a handy excuse to send off an email instead of meeting on Skype.

Organizations need to continue to offer development of those traditional people skills, but in the context of how people really work today. For example, how is coaching different when you’re sitting across a table from when you’re tethered by WebEx? They also need to offer help and training in the proper use of the tools in the context of daily work and communication needs. You can’t listen effectively or facilitate good collaborative discussion if you’re sweating about how to use the white board feature.

How is your organization helping prepare your people not only for the tools they have to use, but for how they’ll help get the real work done?