Motivating IT Professionals

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a popular 1980s song, pretty much summed up that decade in North America, as corporate profits skyrocketed and opportunities abounded, particularly for IT professionals. But the economic downturn of the early 1990s heralded “right-sizing” and flatter, leaner organizations; corporate perks were replaced by longer work days and greater responsibilities; and remuneration and benefit structures failed to keep pace with bigger workloads. What’s more, the implied corporate message to employees changed from: “We need and value your contribution,” to “You’re lucky to have a job.”

A popular theory among corporations at the time seemed to be that there was a great deal of work being done that didn’t need doing – that work expanded in direct proportion to the amount of time and resources available. The solution? Take away the resources and welcome a leaner, more cost-effective organization with less bureaucracy, better decision-making capabilities and greater potential for profitability.

Even IT professionals were not immune from the cost-cutting measures as companies across Canada sought to increase shareholder value through expense containment and outright cuts. As bottom-line oriented zealots slashed and burned their way to short-term goals, people found themselves out of work or languishing in organizations brutalized by downsizing.

Unfortunately, the new formula for success did not provide for the possibility that work would not decrease, but merely change in the way it was executed. In short, the work didn’t go away. New tools, new processes and new initiatives simply created more work, and an understaffed workplace found itself with an overworked, demoralized and tired workforce struggling to implement the strategies and actions necessary to gain the promised efficiencies.

Meanwhile, highly skilled IT employees – terminated by their companies – typically either went to work for the competition or moved across the street, put up a shingle, and became the competition for their former employers.

The inevitable result of all this: staffing to get the job done and retaining critical IT skills suddenly became fashionable again.

Indeed, globalization and the much heralded potential for e-business has IT professionals more in demand than ever. Employers compete for the brightest and the best of computer professionals with job fairs, campus recruitment campaigns and signing bonuses, newspapers abound with job offerings in the IT field, and corporate headhunters regard IT specialists as nuggets to be carefully mined and resettled in new corporate digs.

Why are companies so proactive in soliciting and retaining IT people? Consider the following. Media reports suggest that up to 200,000 programming jobs in the United States are unfulfilled and the employment potential for all IT professionals continues to grow. In addition, Canada’s unemployment rate continues to weigh in at a significantly higher percentage than the unemployment rate for systems analysts, programmers and other IT specialists.

Adding to the crunch, U.S. companies continue to extend their recruiting drives into Canada, eager for the IT skills that can turn their businesses into “E-Corporations” or give them a competitive advantage over others in their increasingly globalized industries. Indeed, attention is once more focused on the message: “We need and value your contribution . . . and we want you to stay.”

The New IT WorkForce

Unfortunately, the increasing demand for skilled IT help comes at a time when employees have been conditioned to expect career or company changes as a matter of course during their lives. The traditional idea of joining and retiring from the same company is about as current as an episode of Leave It To Beaver. The crunch is also coming at a time when competition is heating up for IT skills as global competition and Internet services create new IT-based marketing initiatives on a daily basis. And it’s happening at a time when employees are better informed, better educated and more mobile than ever before.

The result of all this is that employers are looking for all the help they can get in motivating and retaining their IT employees. They’re turning to people like Dr. Jerry Gray, Dean of Faculty of Management at the University of Manitoba, an expert on leadership and motivational theory. According to Dr. Gray, motivating, stimulating, educating and celebrating IT employees is certainly mission-critical. However, even at a time when the economy is enjoying a prolonged period of growth, lasting success will only come to corporations that involve all employees in planning and implementing their company’s vision, mission, and strategy.

Hyperbole? Not really when you consider that many a mighty Fortune 500 company has faded from the scene over the last decade. And with IT so vital to the success of just about every organization these days, the proper care and nurturing of IT employees has become a pressing priority on the HR front.

Celebrating Success

In their recent book, Corporate Celebration – Play, Purpose and Profit at Work, authors Terrence Deal and M. Key have shown that “celebration is an important factor in major business issues such as leadership, profit, purpose, community, team building and more.”

After all, without acknowledging people and their achievements, the much heralded concept of corporate teamwork can become a euphemism for mass exploitation and drudgery. That’s why companies have long maintained or are re-introducing forms of recognition for employees from “Employee of the Week” programs to lavish annual business conferences in exotic locations that promise as much ‘fun’ content as ‘business’ content.

In their book, Deal and Key make a strong case for the art of corporate celebration. They show its many forms, and explain the fundamentals of fun so that employees can recapture joy at work, something many companies forgot during their belt-tightening era.

The results, say Deal and Key, can include:

    restoring company spirit;reinvigorating employee morale;building commitment and loyalty;improving quality and financial performance;instilling work with meaning and joy.

Aspects of Meaningful Recognition

Many corporate consultants previously offered the ‘news’ that recognition for employees did not have to come in the form of something that cost money. A pat on the back, an “attaboy! or attagirl!” or a sincere “thank you” sometimes did just as well. Companies embraced this new religion since it meant cost containment. Consider, however, how many corporate executive bonus structures are based on a sincere “thank you”. Recognition must be tangible, credible, consistent and sincere.

Says Dr. Gray: “Motivation doesn’t necessarily come from a promise of more money, which we call ‘jumping for jelly beans’; rather it comes from involvement in decision-making, along with recognition of the contribution made by an employee.”

For example, that could mean being asked to join an IT steering committee for a particular project; being invited to find ways to improve personal and company efficiencies by jettisoning useless work; being surveyed for opinions on the business – how it’s being run and how it could be made better. In other words, involvement. The not-so-subliminal message that organizations should endeavour to convey is that the employees count.

Beyond promotions, raises, and bonuses – and beyond that simple but extremely important “thank you” – rewards can encompass a wide variety of perks and recognitions including: education, prizes, parties, travel opportunities, sabbaticals, publicity, better office facilities, better opportunities to meet with peers, letters of commendation, trophies, certificates, other formal and informal awards, contract renewals, bulletin board postings (electronic and published), relaxation of dress codes, and even air miles.

Is recognition necessary for motivation? Dr. Gray says yes. “It’s not simply necessary, but critical to motivate and sustain employees during their careers. Failing to do so leads to apathy, disassociation and withdrawal.” He maintains that the Achilles heel of large corporations is their inability to involve and motivate their people. The result is a growing trend for people to join smaller companies where they feel they can make a difference.

A Customized Motivation Program

Should IT employees be treated as special? Considering the high demand for them, and the vital role they play in business operations, a good case can be made for doing so.

While most companies are loath to admit to special treatment for individuals or groups of employees, in fact it’s done all the time. Consider the bonuses for sales reps that exceed quota, or the stock purchase plans and other perks offered to executives. It’s obvious that recognition and motivation programs are customized according to stature, circumstance and ROI within corporations.

Because of the growing importance and mission-critical function of the IT division, IT employees are long overdue for customized motivation and recognition programs. After all, today, more often than not, it is the IT department that is offering dollar savings (through improved processes), greater company exposure (through the Internet), business intelligence (data warehousing and data mining), improved operations (integration) and new and more efficient sales, marketing and distribution channels.

Who could argue with the demonstrable business results achieved through IT initiatives? To name a few:

    Real-time access to informationSeamless communicationsImproved customer responsiveness and serviceNew process efficienciesBetter leverage of opportunitiesEnhanced decision-making capabilities, andCost avoidance and containment

Developing an IT motivation strategy should include not only fair and equitable remuneration, but also the opportunity for a rewarding and stimulating career path, the opportunity to work with leading-edge tools and technologies, and the opportunity to advance skill sets – not only IT skills but soft skills such as leadership and negotiation. The idea should be continually reinforced that IT professionals are vital and integral partners in the business, and as such, they should be recognized throughout the company for a job well done.

“When you are in a tight job market, as we are now seeing for IT professionals, the concept of motivation changes,” says Dr. Gray. “What people do and how they are treated often outweighs the financial aspects of a job. If you don’t treat people well, it will cost you more to keep them. Long term, employees will be motivated by a company they believe in and by a mission they believe in. It’s as simple as that.”

John Richard Wright is a freelance writer based in Toronto.