Open ear policy

While the offshore outsourcing of IT work may dominate the news this year, savvy CIOs know that the success of their companies continues to depend on top-flight, in-house IT talent. In fact, there is a general consensus among CIOs that finding and keeping motivated and talented IT professionals these days requires as much attention as it did during the height of the technology boom in the late ’90s. Companies had trouble retaining workers during the boom days because IT workers could pick from so many other tempting offers; today they face a different challenge.

Now, IT management has to deal with the fear and uncertainty that many IT professionals are feeling as a result of the stampede toward offshore outsourcing. Even employees who have not lost their jobs thus far are worried about the future. And many of them are leery of continuing to work for a company that outsources. In addition, declining enrollments in computer science programs indicate that it may be harder to recruit entry-level IT workers in the coming years.

Throughout my career, I have found retention and recruitment issues to be a major source of angst for IT organizations. When I was CIO of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., a major semiconductor manufacturer, I decided to look at the reasons why members of our IT staff left the company and determine how we could better identify, develop and retain people within IT. The idea for the study emerged from a global conference for the company’s IT managers that I had organized to set the overall direction for my organization. Attendees were divided into teams, and each team was assigned a different initiative to pursue. One of the teams was asked to focus on the recruitment, development and retention of world-class IT employees. This team (which consisted of representatives from HR and various IT staff members) was tasked with investigating attrition in IT and developing retention strategies. They suggested a survey of employees would be a worthwhile first step.

Shortly after the conference, this team distributed the first questionnaire in a series to employees who had worked within our IT department, resigned from the company and later returned to AMD to work within IT again (in either the same position or a different one). We wanted to understand the circumstances that led to the employees’ resignations and also why they decided to return. In addition, exit data from employees who had left the company was collected and analyzed. The team also examined attrition and retention research from various sources — such as Gartner and IDC — to understand industry trends and to compare our company’s IT turnover rate with that of similar organizations.

The survey results showed that employees liked the benefits of the company’s philosophies and culture (which stress that people come first and profits will follow). This aspect was one of the main drivers in bringing former employees back. However, we learned that many had resigned in the first place because management was not demonstrating adequate leadership — especially when communicating a vision, setting team direction and helping employees understand how they fit into the company’s overall goals.

The survey also found that management needed to ensure that employees were enjoying their day-to-day work and were appropriately challenged. (After all, employees who feel underutilized and are not continuously challenged with new projects are likely to look elsewhere for employment.) This meant introducing new and exciting technologies that would give employees opportunities to learn new skills. We also realized that a key factor in retention is reinvigorating relationships between employees and their managers; there must be regular conversations about career development and training to keep employees engaged and challenged.

Rewards and recognition was another area that needed to be addressed, according to the survey results. Providing employees with competitive salaries is essential, though many employees are motivated by things other than money. Managers must determine what form of recognition works best for an employee and use it frequently to reward good performance.

How to Avoid Employee Burnout

Given the success of our first survey, we decided to send another one to IT employees who had transferred into positions outside of IT but were still employed within the company. Again, management issues came through loud and clear. Specifically, respondents said recognition and appreciation from management was sorely lacking. There were also comments intimating that employee burnout was directly related to less-than-sensitive managers who didn’t keep track of their employees’ workloads. When asked what IT could do to retain its employees, respondents overwhelmingly said better management, improved leadership and more respect for employees’ contributions to the company.

The findings from these surveys gave us invaluable directions for how to address retention issues. In the ensuing months, we established leadership development classes for IT management (especially for those who were newly promoted); we enhanced our career development programs to guarantee that employees are advised of their performance and what is expected of them; and, of course, I instructed management to hold communication meetings with employees to provide feedback on these findings and what we were going to do about them.

We also established a compensation strategy to ensure that our pay is competitive and aligned with the market. And we implemented a process for identifying and rewarding major contributors to the company, as well as what I call “on the spot” awards for employees who respond quickly to customer needs. We also developed capabilities for monitoring the success of the retention strategy and communicating that strategy to IT management in quarterly feedback sessions. Such tools can be readily adopted by many companies to keep employees happy. As companies continue to harness new technologies to support their business strategies, the need to maintain a focus on the retention of skilled IT professionals will only increase. Any manager who has endured an extended recruitment process to fill a key position knows that it is preferable to keep a talented employee than to find a new one. CIOs must accept the responsibility for building the strategies and programs that will not only retain top talent, but also will provide the type of environment where IT professionals can flourish and make significant contributions to the company’s overall success.

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