Understanding the economy of incentives

To: Old-line senior non-IT management

From: Someone who might just turn out to be your best friend

Re: The economy of incentives, or Why your IT staff is bailing out on you

Dear Sir:

“It has already been demonstrated that an essential element of organizations is the willingness of persons to contribute their individual efforts to the cooperative system…the contributions of personal efforts which constitute the energies of organizations are yielded because of incentives. The egotistical motives of self-preservation and of self-satisfaction are dominating forces; on the whole, organizations can exist only when consistent with the satisfaction of these motives.”

Aside from the formality of the language, I think you’d agree that these words might have come straight out of the latest management bestseller.

And you’d be right. Except that they were written in 1937.

“So what’s yer point?” I can hear you spit out between your clenched executive teeth.

The point is that in order to effectively manage your IT staff, or any other staff for that matter, you’ve really got to understand what motivates them to stay, and what might motivate them to leave.

I know you’re thinking: “No sh#% Sherlock” and preparing to toss this memo away, but bear with me for a minute.

As self evident as what I’ve written seems (and as self-evident as it has been for many years), sir, with all due respect, you still haven’t clued in.

It’s not just a matter of understanding and acknowledging these motivations either, it is a matter of having the will to make serious changes to address them.

At the risk of raising your infamous hackles, let me suggest that you don’t have the will. How else would you explain a more than 30 per cent annual turnover among your IT staff?

“Greed,” I can hear you say in your inimitable executive growl. “These IT types are just taking advantage of a hot market.” And I’m giving you credit for referring to them as “IT types” rather than what you usually call them.

Yes, they’re taking advantage of a hot market, as if you wouldn’t if a much better offer came along for your vaunted management skills, assuming prehistoric executives ever come back into high demand.

The name of the game here is supply and demand, and the game’s as old as business itself. Your organization reminded all of us, including those greedy IT types, of the inevitability of this business dynamic when you laid off all those people in 1997 because of “market forces.”

Market forces: if you’re losing IT people to other companies for more money, you’d got to be asking yourself a fundamental question: are they paying too much, or are you paying too little?

You could argue that the people you’re losing are a known commodity to you, and an unknown to a new employer, so you really know what they’re worth.

Are you sure? Have you really made an explicit and honest effort to line up what your IT staff are looking for from the work they do with what your organization requires from them?

Do you really understand what it was that made that last IT person leave? Start from the assumption that in almost every case a large part of the fault is either directly your own, or within your control.

And, sir, it ain’t always the money – maybe it’s just because she “couldn’t spend one more day in those gawdawful cubicles.” You remember the cubicles don’t you? The ones you introduced for all the technical staff to cut down on real estate costs?

I can hear the gears turning in your mind: “If I changed the cubicles for her, I’d have to change the cubicles for everyone – how much would that cost? And how much would it cost me to fix the things that everyone else is unhappy with?”

Sir, I’d bet the number isn’t nearly as high as the cost of turning over 30 per cent of your technical staff inside one year.

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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