Are Communication Skills More Important Than Technical Skills?

Are communication skills more important than technical skills? Having worked in Offshoring for 25+ years I can tell you a primary driver of success is the technical communication skills of customer-facing engineers.  English proficiency provides a foundation for this, but that’s only one part of what constitutes effective communication in a modern engineering context.   

In the “New Normal” of remote, geographically dispersed development teams, the need for effective communication is more important than ever.  This is especially true when outsourcing in the Offshoring / Nearshoring models, as it can be challenging to maintain Agile and DevOps processes and practices.

Development Managers, tasked with finding scarce development skills in a hot market, have increasingly turned to Offshoring and Nearshoring.  This strategy can pay off handsomely, provided English proficiency is a major consideration in your vendor selection process.  At a minimum, proficiency in communicative English is essential for engineers when interpreting technical information and creating solutions as a team. However, an effective Agile/DevOps culture requires even higher proficiency standards.  Below are a few suggestions for enabling effective technical communication across your outsourcing base. 

How to Ensure Strong Technical Communication from Nearshoring & Offshoring Partners

  •  Pick the right test

General English tests are considered insufficient for assessing global communication competency in an engineering context.  Assessment exams, like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), offered by Cambridge University’s Cambridge Assessment English (CAE) exam board can be very useful in measuring technical communication skills.  CAE processes 5.5 million candidates per year and is recognized by 25,000 employers and institutions worldwide.  (See table below)

The Common European Framework divides learners into three broad divisions (A, B, C) that can be further divided into two levels.  For each level, it measures performance in reading, listening, speaking and writing. (Only levels B and C are shown, reflecting relevancy in an engineering context)

CEFR Framework Levels

Level groupLevelDescription
Independent user
Threshold or intermediate
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Vantage or upper intermediate
Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Proficient user
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
  • Choose outsourcing partners from countries ranking high in English skills

If you plan to scale-up a team rapidly, it’s important to pick Nearshoring/Offshoring partners from countries ranking high in English skills, as it is easier for the partner to scale a team for you if the pool of engineers with English proficiency is larger.  EF EPI is an English Proficiency Index that covers 100+ countries and regions, based on over 2.2 million test results.  Here’s a snapshot of their current testing results:

  • Make your communication expectations clear with potential outsourcing partners

Sub-par communication is often thought of as a “necessary evil” when working with lower cost regions of the world.  This does not have to be the case.  Universities and development partners are beginning to realize the importance of building technical communication excellence into their organizations.  All potential development partners will claim they are good at communication.  Ask them to show you.  Pick a partner who demonstrates excellent technical communication skills during peer-to-peer meetings and calls as you evaluate them as a potential outsourcing partner.  Don’t settle for “the way things are”.

We hope these suggestions offer some useful guidance to improving your technical communication levels within your outsourcing base.