Managing IT staff in times of change

Attracting and retaining capable high-tech talent is critical to the success of virtually every medium- to large-sized organization. How are Canadian CIOs coping with the ever-present challenges of recruitment and retention? A recent survey explores the issue.

PricewaterhouseCoopers collaborated with Weir Executive Search Associates to conduct interviews with 22 CIOs from public and private organizations across Canada. Respondents were asked to identify key factors in recruiting and retaining IT talent, how they are addressing HR challenges, and how successful they feel their organizations are in meeting these HR challenges. The findings form part of the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2001 Survey Report “Attracting and Retaining Talent in a Changing Economy”.

Key Employment Factors

CIOs were asked to comment on the five most important IT employment factors from the survey: 1) respect; 2) full health benefits; 3) supportive, effective management; 4) reimbursement for training expenses; and 5) opportunities for advancement. They were asked if they agreed that these factors were critical to recruiting and retaining high-tech workers.

The respondents tended to agree generally that respect, supportive, effective management, and opportunities for advancement were important. As one commented, “Respect should be a given if there is supportive, effective management.” Leadership (not just good management) was also important. CIOs spoke about the use of 360-degree feedback, annual appraisals, as well as training and education for managers to ensure respectful, supportive and effective senior managers. Some said that a focus on all aspects of human resources contributed to successful recruitment and retention of IT staff.

Some CIOs thought that providing opportunity for advancement was the most important factor. Several spoke about the use of dual career ladders, where people are promoted without having to take on responsibilities associated with the management of people. A few said that security, opportunities and benefits associated with being part of a large, well known, global organization were attractive. Most CIOs did not see health benefits as having as much importance as the other top four factors.

Training was also discussed, as it is a big budget item. However, the provision of required training and its development was viewed by CIOs as being much more important than the reimbursement of training expenses that their employees viewed as important. They were concerned that their IT staff receive the required training, but they worried about the cost.

Salaries are less of a factor than they were in the past, as a result of the economic downturn. However, more than half of the CIOs said that salaries were still a critical issue. Offering enough to stay “in the ballpark” can sometimes result in escalating salaries.

While the survey found that, overall, CIOs are still very concerned about recruitment and retention, most are finding that the weaker economy is reducing unwanted attrition. Nevertheless, several respondents indicated that they are still finding it difficult to recruit, particularly in niche or “hot-skill” areas, and therefore do not want to lose the employees they have.

What’s Important to CIOs Themselves?

The CIOs talked about having the support of their executive committee as key to being more effective in their role. They want freedom to make decisions, opportunities to contribute to the success of the business, and the opportunity to work on projects of which they can be proud. They also spoke about the desire to work for a growing organization and the need for competitive compensation.

The majority worked more than 50 hours per week and claimed that work/life balance was an issue, especially those who commute a great distance to their office. Five of the respondents, however, claimed that work/life balance was not an issue. They accepted the long hours as a given at their level.

Methods of Attracting and Retaining IT Talent

Several CIOs, especially those with lower IT staff turnover, said they treated all aspects of HR management seriously, including annual appraisals, career counselling, and providing opportunities for advancement.

Recruitment methods mentioned included having a dedicated, in-house IT recruiter; using Web-based recruitment advertising; employee referrals (mentioned several times); participation in job fairs; networking (almost always cited); employment agencies; conversion of contractors to employees; and hiring of co-op students who had already worked summers in the organization.

CIOs in companies with a turnover rate of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent said that staff turnover is needed “or else you’re either paying too much or demanding too little.” Some CIOs said that higher turnover was the result of an ineffective overtime policy.

The CIO’s Future

CIOs were asked about the significant changes they foresaw in their role, and what major challenges or opportunities might drive changes in either their own role, or in the roles of their IT staff.

Only three CIOs did not think their roles would change in the next twelve to eighteen months. Wealth creation and risk mitigation were seen as important future considerations. Some foresaw their own role as more of a change agent in the future, focused on business transformation. The CIO will have more interaction with customers and business partners to explain e-business opportunities. As one respondent stated, he will be “moving out of the engine room and onto the bridge” as his role becomes more focused on the business side.

Much the same was seen as the future for IT workers. IT jobs are multi-faceted today, and will be more so in the future. While technical skills remain important, business skills will be more in demand. As a result of this shift, more new skills will be required to reflect changing technology. IT workers will need a whole new set of skills that deal with customer service. Companies will need IT workers with an understanding of the application of new technologies to customers. This is proving hard to find.

PricewaterhouseCoopers aims to make this CIO consultation an annual event. As a CIO or the technology leader of your organization, you can contribute to their annual study. If you are interested, please contact Mieke Smulders at 416-227-6485 or Doug Weir at 416-440-1033.

Sharon Clark is a human resource management consultant with the Human Capital Solutions practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Ottawa. She specializes in recruitment and retention strategy for highly-qualified professionals. Sharon can be reached at[email protected].

Mieke Smulders is a Principal Consultant in the Organization and Change Strategy practice in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Toronto office. He can be reached at [email protected].

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