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A Closer Look at Attention to Detail

Beyond communications, interpersonal, and leadership skills, there's another `non-technical skill' fundamental to success in IT.
  1. Introduction
  2. Survey Results
  3. Conclusion
  4. References
  5. Authors
  6. Figures
  7. Tables

“It drives me crazy when other people don’t pay attention to the details. The details are what count when an IT software project is delivered.”—Team leader at a large IT consulting firm

“After seeing this survey, attention to detail will now become part of my vocabulary. Too often it is assumed or ignored.”—Data warehousing professional at a Fortune 500 company

In his first summer as Dallas Cowboys’ head football coach, Bill Parcells told a player who made a mistake during training camp, “You’ve got to think! You’ve got to do the little things right!” About his newly hired coach, the team owner, Jerry Jones, said, “I had no idea I was hiring someone so intimately involved in every single thing” [3]. Parcells’s approach, which can be described as paying attention to detail (ATD), was successful in turning around the team’s poor performance and taking it to the Super Bowl. ATD is a formula for success, but it has been given little formal recognition within IT.

Table 1 shows the results of keyword searches on two leading online business databases in late 2003. These results were obtained from compound searches combining “attention to detail” and the names of various business-related disciplines. They also illustrate that ATD rarely surfaces in IT or IS articles.

ATD can be defined as “covering all aspects with painstaking accuracy” [7]. ATD has qualities of both completeness and correctness and involves noticing the “little things.” Previous studies of IT-related job skills differentiate between technical skills (competencies associated with technologies) and nontechnical skills (other skills or abilities needed for the IT profession, also known as “soft skills”). While ATD is a nontechnical skill that is intuitively important for IT work, its frequency of occurrence in IT job advertisements is low compared to other soft skills. For example, our recent review of the employment Web site found that ATD appeared in only 3% of IT job ads, compared to 52% for written communications skills, 48% for oral communications skills, 30% for leadership, and 28% for interpersonal skills.

Prior research suggests that this lack of presence does not mean that ATD is unimportant to IT work. IT professionals rated ATD among the most important nontechnical skills for entry-level IT employees, with an average rating of 4.3 on a scale with 5 as the highest [2]. In addition, employers perceived a wider gap between expected and actual performance for ATD than for any of the other 37 technical and nontechnical skills investigated [2]. These findings suggest that ATD is not getting appropriate recognition in the IT field. If a greater focus were put on ATD in IT education, IT selection practices, and the literature, would those entering the IT field be more sensitized to its importance in performing their jobs?

Previous studies of IT job skills considered numerous technical and nontechnical skills using surveys of employers, faculty, and others [2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11] or, alternatively, via content analyses of IT job ads [5, 9]. In contrast, this study looks at employers’ perceptions of a single job skill: attention to detail. Given the paucity of literature about ATD in the IT field and its potential importance, this study considers various issues, including:

  • What employers think about ATD;
  • ATD’s perceived importance;
  • How ATD is assessed and used in IT management; and
  • Whether putting greater focus on ATD produces any benefits for IT management.

A Web-based survey was emailed to 340 IT professionals. Slightly more than 100 were members of the Society of Information Management (SIM) Detroit chapter, and the remainder were from a large IT consulting firm in Michigan. A total of 95 responses were received, for a response rate of 28%. Table 2 shows the demographic profile of the respondents. Our analysis of the survey results reported here showed no significant differences as a function of respondents’ demographic characteristics. Follow-up interviews were conducted with IT professionals from eight organizations to obtain additional information.

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Survey Results

Meaning of ATD. It is important to clarify how IT professionals think about ATD. A survey question asked respondents which of two statements they agreed with most: “ATD is a skill that can be significantly improved over time;” or “ATD is a personal quality that a person tends to either have or not have.” There was no consensus about this issue; 62% of participants viewed ATD as a skill, while 38% perceived it as a personal quality.

While this survey question “forced” participants to select only one of these two responses, follow-up interviews suggest that many IT professionals think ATD is both a skill and a personal quality; seven of eight interviewees expressed this view. According to one participant, “Some people are naturals with respect to attention to detail. But I also think ATD can be learned over time by people who really work at it.” Another respondent said, “I think some people naturally set their quality bar higher and their work products reflect that commitment. These people are more analytical and more focused on ATD. However, I also believe that people who lack ATD can be taught techniques to improve in this area.”

“There is no question that staff who lack ATD are more difficult to manage, and their work needs closer scrutiny.”

Respondents’ perceptions of ATD. An open-ended question asked participants to contribute other words they thought were the same as ATD. Consistent with the definition of ATD presented here, participants frequently viewed ATD as involving completeness and correctness. Table 3 provides support for these terms because it shows similar expressions. Regarding completeness, respondents commented that ATD is “thinking creatively to ensure all possible angles have been addressed” and “knowing dependencies, and seeing potential future issues.” A number of other perspectives were also offered: 10 respondents said ATD is closely associated with quality; eight perceived ATD as being “focused” or “perceptive”; six thought ATD is an attitude of being “conscientious”; and five viewed ATD as associated with “competence” or “professionalism.”

Our findings show numerous interpretations of ATD. While ATD was commonly viewed in terms of completeness, correctness, or both, other responses associated ATD with behaviors, skills, or work outcomes. To some respondents, ATD was a general attitude or orientation toward work, while others construed its meaning rather narrowly, such as having organizational skills or follow-through. The common denominator to all comments was that ATD is associated in one way or another with excellence or ways of achieving excellence.

Importance of ATD. Respondents rated the importance of ATD on a five-point scale, from 5 for “very important” to 1 for “very unimportant.” Figure 1 shows that most participants (88%) rated ATD as very important for IT jobs, 12% said it was somewhat important, and no participants provided responses of “somewhat unimportant,” “very unimportant,” or “don’t know/no opinion.” The mean response on the five-point scale was 4.88.

One participant said, “I think ATD is an inherent quality that any IT professional cannot survive without. There is no question that staff who lack ATD are more difficult to manage, and their work needs closer scrutiny.” Another respondent said, “If IT professionals don’t pay attention to detail, requirements, design attributes, and other critical development components can be overlooked, imposing significant risk, time, and added money to IT work.” One participant said, “ATD is most important in the analyst role where `the details’ are analyzed and evaluated. The challenge is frequently putting details in context and knowing what needs to be analyzed and when enough analysis has been completed.”

In interviews, participants were asked about the importance of ATD today compared to three to five years ago. Five of eight interviewees said ATD is more important today, while the remainder said it is equally important. The most commonly cited reason among respondents who said ATD is more important was pressure on the IT function to produce more and better work with fewer resources. As one participant said, “With a reduced systems life cycle, there is less time to interact and more pressure to get it right the first time. ATD becomes more important.” Participants also commented that they think ATD is underestimated in the IT field. One respondent said, “I cannot recall a single training program that taught ATD, and yet I think it is one of the most important aspects of interface design and system development. Although ATD can be learned through experience and mentoring, all new programmers, and some more experienced ones, could benefit from some formal introduction to the concepts of ATD.”

Importance of ATD within different levels of the IT hierarchy. The survey queried respondents about whether they think ATD is more important, less important, or equally important the higher one goes up the IT chain of command. Participants were divided on this issue. Figure 2 shows that 48% find ATD is equally important for higher-level IT positions, 39% less important, and 13% more important.

While most participants viewed ATD as equally important at all IT levels, several respondents said that they think the meaning of ATD varies with job level. One participant said that for CIOs, ATD means “making sure action items are well tracked, system-level requirements are coordinated with business plans, etc.,” while another said it is about “securing entrusted advisers who can keep you informed about the details.”

Negative impacts of a lack of ATD. As another way to assess the importance of ATD, respondents were asked about their experience when ATD was lacking in an IT project or activity. Figure 3 indicates over two-thirds of the participants reported negative impacts. For example, systems requirements were gathered incompletely or inaccurately, a project was delivered late or over budget, a system was designed or developed that did not meet user needs, and important elements were not included in a system. Other commonly reported effects included that the IT standards of the company were not followed (55%), a resulting system lacked ease of use (49%), and a system was developed that could have resulted in financial losses or harm to the company (30%). Other responses contributed by respondents included that the resulting system contained bugs and required “an extended stabilization period before it could go live to normal/standard support requirements.”

Satisfaction with employees’ ATD. The survey queried respondents about their degree of satisfaction with the amount of ATD that most new IT employees bring to the job. Consistent with the findings of a previous study [2], the results suggest that there is a substantial room for improvement. On a five-point scale, ranging from 5 for “very satisfied” to 1 for “very dissatisfied,” a mean rating of 3.01 was obtained. Specifically, 45% of the respondents were somewhat satisfied, 33% somewhat dissatisfied, 14% don’t know/no opinion, 7% very dissatisfied, and only 1% very satisfied.

Ways to improve ATD. Given these results, it is useful to explore what actions companies take to improve their employees’ ATD. Many respondents reported using multiple methods to improve ATD: 63% used feedback from managers or project leaders, 55% used performance review sessions, 50% used feedback from customers or clients, 46% used mentoring, 46% used feedback from peers, and 12% used other methods. Other methods respondents mentioned were quality or six sigma training; the use of checklists, schedules, methodology, documentation, and audits; user presentations; and managers clearly communicating the level of detail expected in work assignments.

Some respondents emphasized the role of job experience in improving ATD, saying, “Knowing what to look for, what needs to be addressed in a given situation is a learned experience for most folks. So, new hires are less likely to be proficient, as their experiences to date are limited in scope and complexity. ATD increases as experience is gained.” Another IT professional recognized the significance of job experience to ATD but said training can play an important role, stating: “… The key would be to train employees through a series of very different situational analyses … before practicing in the real world.”

One irony is that while there is almost unanimous agreement about the importance of ATD to IT work, there is no consensus about what ATD means.

ATD in IT hiring decisions. This survey assessed the extent to which ATD is considered in making employment decisions. The results showed variation. Only 9% of participants reported that ATD is one criterion used by their companies in making IT hiring decisions. The most common response (received from 40% of respondents) was that ATD is not an explicit selection criterion, but it is implied in other selection criteria used. An additional 19% reported that ATD is not considered in selection decisions, while 34% gave a “don’t know/no opinion” response.

To assess ATD in prospective employees, participants reported that they most commonly use work samples (60%), references (60%), and previous work experience or internships (56%). Less frequently used methods include academic performance (24%), personality tests (24%), and assessment center exercises (22%). Among companies using personality or employment tests, few respondents claim to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test, or quantitative, reading comprehension, and technical exercises. Five respondents also viewed face-to-face personal and/or technical interviews as a way to assess ATD. One participant said, “I ask them to explain a specific process and see how detailed their response is.”

ATD and IT job advertisements. The survey asked respondents why they thought ATD is not more frequently mentioned in IT position advertisements. The most common response (34%) was that ATD is assumed or implicit in IT work, so there is no need to mention it. In addition, 29% thought that ATD was too difficult to measure and 20% that ATD is too difficult to define. Another 11% said that ATD is already covered by other job selection factors, and 6% provided an “other” response. One respondent said, “Everyone will say they have ATD whether they do or not. It is better to look for it but not tell them.”

In contrast, many respondents saw advantages in making ATD more explicit. A survey question asked whether mentioning ATD explicitly in IT employment ads would produce any potential benefits. In their responses, where participants could agree with one or more statements: 57% agreed it would better communicate company work expectations; 38% it would draw more attention to relevant job requirements; 27% it would lead to better selection decisions; and 26% no benefit. Among those favoring giving ATD more emphasis in selection practices, one participant said, “Too many people who get through the interview process end up not having good ATD. So, if ATD was more of a focus during the interview process but didn’t necessarily take away from the other interview topics, we would be able to get more quality employees.”

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The results of this study raise important ironies and implications for action. One irony is that while there is almost unanimous agreement about the importance of ATD to IT work, there is no consensus about what ATD means. Many IT professionals view ATD as a personal quality and a “trainable skill” at which individuals can improve over time. The meaning of ATD also appears to vary somewhat by IT job level.

A second irony is that while evidence suggests ATD is important and IT professionals could perform significantly better in terms of it, ATD is ignored by the IT community. Typically, when a problem is faced in a discipline, practitioners and/or academics focus effort to solve it. This has not happened with ATD in the IT field. This raises the question: Would giving ATD more emphasis in IT selection, training, and development improve IT practices? This is an important question for IT management to consider.

A third irony is that the importance of ATD to IT work is growing at the same time that organizational forces are working to raise or meet competing objectives. Today, IT functions are under intense efficiency pressures. Some participants stated that IT shops follow an “80-20 rule” that emphasizes getting 80% of what users want in a system “out the door” quickly, returning later to address the other 20%. While our findings suggest that the negative effects of a lack of ATD in IT work are more severe than ever, there is greater likelihood for important items to fall between the cracks in today’s IT environment.

ATD has substantial power as an untapped resource for improving IT practice and quality. This study shows that ATD connotes excellence in the minds of IT professionals, and ATD is overwhelmingly viewed as important to IT work. However, several important challenges remain if ATD is to assume a bigger role.

First and foremost, the meaning of ATD requires clarification that is translatable into clear action. The lack of agreement about the definition of ATD could explain why it is not given more explicit recognition in IT selection practices and the IT literature. Thus, an important challenge for IT researchers and practitioners is to clarify the meaning of ATD and operationalize it in a concrete way.

A second challenge is to examine ATD assessment techniques as they relate to IT selection. Various psychological instruments assess ATD or closely related measures. For example, the Temperament Survey and the Myer-Kendall Assessment Survey include ATD; other tests, such as the 16PF Personality Test, the Employment Productivity Index, and the Occupational Personality Questionnaire, include measures called “perfectionism,” “accuracy,” and “detail consciousness” [1]. Future research could address the effectiveness of these measures for IT selection or develop new measures specifically designed to assess ATD in IT work. However, it should be recognized that ATD is but one important consideration in IT hiring.

Another important challenge is to identify effective ways to improve ATD in the IT work force. The participants in this study offered many ideas for improving ATD, but there is a need to identify best practices. IT management should reexamine whether IT employees are given clear expectations about ATD through coaching and training programs; if not, quality training programs offer one important vehicle to teach ATD concepts.

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F1 Figure 1. Importance of ATD.

F2 Figure 2. Importance of ATD moving up the IT chain of command.

F3 Figure 3. Impacts observed where ATD was missing in an IT project.

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T1 Table 1. Number of ATD-related sources in online business databases.

T2 Table 2. Participant characteristics.

T3 Table 3. Meaning of ATD.

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