With millions of unfilled cybersecurity jobs and security experts in high demand, chief information security officers (CISOs) are starting to think outside the box to bridge the skills gap. Already, initiatives such as outsourced support and systems automation are making inroads to reduce IT stress and improve efficiency — but they’re not enough to drive long-term success.

Enter the next frontier for forward-thinking technology executives: Soft skills.

How Important Are Soft Skills in the Enterprise?

Soft skills stem from personality traits and characteristics. Common examples include excellent communication, above-average empathy and the ability to demystify tech jargon, as opposed to the certifications and degrees associated with traditional IT skills.

Historically, IT organizations have prioritized harder skills over their softer counterparts — what good is empathy in solving storage problems or improving server uptime? However, as noted by Forbes, recent Google data revealed measurable benefits when teams contain a mix of hard and soft skills. The search giant found that the “highest-performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process.”

How Can Companies Quantify Qualitative Skill Sets?

Soft skills drive value, but how can organizations quantify qualitative characteristics? Which skill sets offer the greatest value for corporate objectives?

When it comes to prioritization, your mileage may vary; depending on the nature and complexity of IT projects, different skills provide different value. For example, long-term projects that require cross-departmental collaboration could benefit from highly communicative IT experts, while quick-turnaround mobile application developments may require creative thinking to identify potential security weaknesses.

According to Tripwire, there is some industry consensus on the most sought-after skills: Analytical thinking tops the list at 65 percent, followed by good communication (60 percent), troubleshooting (59 percent) and strong ethical behavior (58 percent). CIO calls out skills such as in-house customer service, a collaborative mindset and emotional intelligence.

Start Your Search for Soft Cybersecurity Skills

The rise of soft skills isn’t happening in a vacuum. As noted by a recent Capgemini study, “The talent gap in soft digital skills is more pronounced than in hard digital skills,” with 51 percent of companies citing a lack of hard digital skills and 59 percent pointing to a need for softer skill sets. CISOs must strive to create hiring practices that seek out soft-skilled applicants and a corporate culture that makes the best use of these skills.

When it comes to hiring, start by identifying a shortlist of skills that would benefit IT projects — these might include above-average communication, emotional aptitude or adaptability — then recruit with these skills in mind. This might mean tapping new collar candidates who lack formal certifications but have the drive and determination to work in cybersecurity. It also means designing an interview process that focuses on staff interaction and the ability of prospective employees to recognize and manage interpersonal conflict.

It’s also critical to create a plan for long-term retention. Enterprises must create IT environments that maximize employee autonomy and give staff the ability to implement real change. Just like hard skills, if soft skills aren’t used regularly they can decay over time — and employees won’t wait around if companies aren’t willing to change.

Cultivate Relationships Between Humans and Hardware

Just as IT certifications are adapting to meet the demands of new software, hardware and infrastructure, soft skills are also changing as technology evolves. Consider the rise of artificial intelligence (AI): Often portrayed positively as a key component of automated processes and negatively as an IT job stealer, there’s an emerging need for IT skills that streamline AI interaction and fill in critical performance gaps.

As noted by HR Technologist, tasks that require emotional intelligence are naturally resistant to AI. These include everything from delivering boardroom presentations to analyzing qualitative user feedback or assisting staff with cybersecurity concerns. Here, the human nature of soft skills provides their core value: Over time, these skills will set employees apart from their peers and organizations apart from the competition. Enterprises must also court professionals capable of communicating with AI tools and human colleagues with equal facility. These soft-centric characteristics position new collar employees as the bridge between new technologies and existing stakeholder expectations.

It’s Time to Prioritize Softer Skill Sets

There’s obviously solid value in soft skills — according to a study from the University of Michigan, these skills offer a 256 percent return on investment (ROI). For CISOs, the message is clear: It’s time to prioritize softer skill sets, re-evaluate hiring and recruitment practices, and prepare for a future where the hard skills of AI-enhanced technology require a soft balance to drive cybersecurity success.

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