Monday, June 1, 2009

Talent Management in Information Technology

The Information Technology (IT) sector is evolving very rapidly, over time it has developed a reputation as a high stress career field, with low personal rewards, little chance of advancement and ultimately an area of low morale. While this is not the case within all IT departments, it has become a common perception of the industry as a whole. This perception has been driven by a variety of factors including fewer staff available to complete tasks and the use of outsourcing for lower cost resources. We as an industry need to take more ownership of our staff and skills and work to develop them internally in a way that provides companies maximum value from their IT organization, while ensuring staff are successful, stable and ultimately happy with their work environments.

First, we should define the “standard” IT employee, and I am not talking about the system administrator that works all hours of the night while drinking Red Bull. I am talking about those traits that make IT staff want to work in the technology field. While this description will not cover all IT employees, there are certain traits that stand out more in the IT space then other professions:

  • Curious by nature

  • Detail focused

  • Quest for understanding

  • Prefer the technology to the business

  • Like to build things

  • Opinionated

  • Seeking Recognition

We now have a better understanding of what IT staff do and expect by nature. Lets explore the primary drivers that go into their ability to focus on their job and deliver successfully to the companies bottom line. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but in my experience these are the top items within an IT department that contribute to employees truly enjoying their job; employees just staying for the paycheck versus employees that are looking to move on to other opportunities.

Pay – There is a common misconception in IT that folks will work at a given company because it is interesting and exciting work, but this is only true to a point. We all have bills to pay for rent, utilities, food, entertainment, and student loans. An employee paid market average for a given area will often stay at a company if the work is exciting. But no level of excitement and interest is enough to make up for below average pay when an individual is struggling to pay their bills. Companies should strive to ensure their salaries are consistent with the local market for the level of skills an employee is utilizing at work each day.

There are also other costs that go directly with pay. It is very expensive to loose an employee, they take lots of company experience and knowledge with them. Transferring that knowledge to a new employee is costly in the time they are learning the business, they are contributing less to the bottom line. Companies should always evaluate the cost of raises for staff to ensure they stay at the area average to the cost of loosing one employee and having to hire another.

Opportunities – Staff within IT organizations are curious by nature, with that trait they constantly want to expand their knowledge and experience. Some of the most successful staff I have worked with in IT move on a regular basis, not always up in the corporate ladder, but most often laterally to other jobs that are of interest to them. This provides them a benefit of increasing their skill sets, and provides a benefit to the company because corporate knowledge is not lost when an individual moves within the company. IT staff should be provided opportunities to move both within the IT department and within the company. This movement and change of jobs is often what IT staff need to ensure they do not get burned out while allowing them to stay engaged with their jobs.

Interesting Work – Very few people are content doing the same activity every day. Because of the general trait for IT staff being on a constant quest for understanding, most IT staff are always looking for new and exciting projects. It allows them to be creative and develop new solutions to the problem. Sadly, there is always going to be some tasks that are more interesting then others within IT departments. Effort should be used to ensure that any less then desirable tasks be evenly spread across available team members, and that team members understand that while they may have been assigned a less then desirable project, so were their teammates.

Staff should be encouraged to not only take on projects assigned to them, but to come forward with ideas they have for improvement within the organization. This encourages all team members to have a stake in the organization and feel ownership of not only their projects, but other tasks that they may see a need for completing.

Flexibility – Employees appreciate when their management allows them the flexibility to work when they are most productive. I am not necessarily talking about allowing staff to work in their pajamas from home, but more referring to ensuring employees do not feel tied down with a specific schedule that causes them less productivity.

Working from home has become very common in many organizations, especially IT. I believe that a lot of organizations have taken it a step too far and staff are beginning to feel the isolation of working by themselves each and every day. I believe that staff should be provided the tools and flexibility that if they choose to work remote for an afternoon, that should be allowed. I believe that the majority of a 40-hour work week should be spent in the office, it encourages staff to communicate with their coworkers, take a vested ownership in the daily operations of the business and ensures the company develops a culture of it's own.

No two people are alike when it comes to sleeping schedules. This has a very negative effect when employees are asked to begin their day at a time that is not natural for them. I believe that staff should be given the flexibility to arrive and begin their day when they will be most productive. This does not mean everyone should sleep in until noon and begin work at 1PM. It does mean that should a staff member prefer to work later in the evening because that is when they are most productive, the company should encourage this behavior.

Ultimately an organization is only as strong as the communication between it's team members. Above I mentioned that working from home all the time is a suboptimal choice; the primary reason for that belief is that communication can be challenging when everyone is so spread out. The ability to quickly gather team members in the office and discuss a topic can ensure minimal time is wasted when a decision must be made. I believe that office hours, also called core hours, is an optimal method to ensure staff have the flexibility to work remotely, while encouraging team communication. By having all staff in the office for certain set periods, often 10-12AM and 2-4PM, it ensures that if a staff member is needed for a discussion, they can be found. This use of core hours, I believe, provides a good balance of allowing flexibility for staff and ensuring a solid team dynamic takes hold for the team.

Work Space – One common perception within IT over the years has been that putting staff in shared space will allow better collaboration. The challenge is that very little IT work is collaborative in nature, the bulk of the work that must be accomplished is individuals working on their pieces of a project, and this type of activity requires that staff be able to focus. Shared spaces have a lot of benefits in terms of quick access to others, but at the cost of decreased focus due to noise and other distractions. I believe that companies need two primary types of space available for their IT staff, private offices to allow for focus and concentration, and shared collaboration areas to allow for quick meetings and discussions.

Private office space allows staff to have an area that is their own to focus on their work and not be distracted by outside noise, phone calls, hall way discussions or projects. Each staff member should have an office that allows them to close the door and focus free of distractions.

Common areas should be available to encourage team discussions and impromptu meetings. Very rarely can a decision be made faster then by pulling the team together for a quick discussion in the hallway. These common areas within an office space should have enough white board space that notes can be kept on any design ideas or other notes from the discussion. These common areas will also encourage inclusion of all project members, and not just a subset that may discuss the matter in a private office or on a conference call.

Loyalty – Companies often expect a certain level of loyalty from all staff, but do not necessarily show that level of loyalty back to their staff. Having the CEO walk around at the company holiday party and shake hands only goes so far to telling employees that they are valued. I encourage all managers within IT to regularly call out their accomplishments of their staff to the rest of the organization. IT staff strive for recognition, it is what encourages them to do their best every day. When managers publicly acknowledge a job well done it tells the employee and all their coworkers that the effort and work are appreciated.

Now that we have those out of the way, lets explore the deep dark truth of IT. Even if a company does each of those perfectly, some staff are going to leave. This is just the nature of the business. No matter how hard a company and it's managers try, there will always be staff that are looking for something that the company can not provide. When this case occurs, and it will, it is important that the employee and company both act as professional as possible. There is an old saying in HR, “don't burn your bridges.” That applies to both the company and the individual. IT is such a rapidly evolving industry that even if the match between a company and employee is not correct now, it is very possible that a match will be made down the road after either the company or the individual evolve. “Don't burn your bridges” applies to both the employee and the employer, even if a staff member leaves, they still have institutional knowledge that could be of value down the road.

Someone I have worked with many times over the years has a very clear way to sum up the relationship between employee and employer, “Pay me well, Treat me well, Wish me well.” Meaning that if you pay your employees fairly and treat them wonderfully they will do quality work, if you pay them exceptionally well and have higher stress levels they will do quality work, but should an employee not be treated fairly and is not being paid well enough to compensate, the company should “Wish them well” in new opportunities.