Oct 31 2006


Strong workplace management cultures and creative technology opportunities may be the secret to retaining restless staffers.

How do you keep your IT workers from jumping ship? It’s not always a money issue.

Ben Bradley

When he worked for CUNA Mutual, Steve Devoti lived and breathed identity management. He wanted to be part of the standards bodies attempting to solve the problems of managing user identity across multiple applications.

“But CUNA didn't pay us to write white papers and do research,” recalls Devoti, who left CUNA and joined the University of Wisconsin at Madison as an enterprise architect in October 2005. “Doing a deep dive on identity management is what I wanted to do, and the university lets me build this expertise.”

Lack of engagement, not lack of compensation, is the main reason why people switch jobs, says Jim Concelman, manager of leadership development at Development Dimensions International (DDI), in Bridgeville, Pa. Employees stay with an organization for growth and development, leadership and meaningful work. This is good news for higher education employers with strong management cultures because an engaging workplace and an engaged workforce can be powerful recruiting and retention tools.

Engagement is the level of energy and commitment a person brings to an organization. Engaged employees perform better, do more, display more job ownership and are more committed to the organization. Research shows that the more engaged the workforce is, the more productive the organization will be.

When DDI studied thousands of employees across 200 organizations, its research revealed that employees with higher engagement scores are more satisfied with their jobs, less likely to leave their organizations and more capable of achieving performance goals.

“Engagement is a true differentiator,” Concelman says, adding that “an engaged IT workplace is difficult to build and requires a significant management commitment.”

To improve employee engagement, it's important to understand the characteristics of an engaged employee. A study conducted in 2006 by the Chicago-based management consulting firm HR Solutions compared employee engagement opinions from 2.2 million participants across 2,100 organizations in the U.S. workforce. It found that employees are engaged because of the possibility of promotions and career advancement, satisfaction with the work, overall agreement with strategy and dedication to the customer.

Making Promises

Levels of management in universities and colleges have flattened, so the opportunities for traditional career advancement are fewer. “Luckily, in the IT world, especially the academic IT world, an upward career trajectory isn't as important as a sense of growth, expansion and momentum,” DDI's Concelman says. What's important is reducing restlessness with a sense of forward trajectory – providing a “promising future.”

Concelman believes the promising future for most IT workers isn't the corner office. Instead, it involves learning, becoming a stronger employee, building knowledge and doing projects that are technically interesting.

Francene Mangham agrees. As the interim associate vice president for academic and administrative information technology at Emory University in Atlanta, she is one of a number of IT higher education administrators who have instituted big-picture thinking for their IT staff, and who work diligently to build a culture of momentum and continuous learning.

“The big picture for most of the staff is an opportunity to take on much larger roles and more responsibility, and work on new technologies and much bigger assignments compared to the private sector,” Mangham says.

Emory, the third largest employer in Georgia's DeKalb County, boasts a staff with extensive private sector experience. It has been able to lure employees from local companies such as CNN, Coca-Cola and Georgia Pacific. Mangham believes competitive salaries and new and different projects have kept the voluntary turnover rate at less than 5 percent annually.

Aligning With Strategy

A clear understanding of what each employee should do and how those efforts affect the department and the organization will reduce restlessness, says Kevin Sheridan, CEO of HR Solutions. The firm's research revealed that while 55 percent of employees prefer to receive organizational information directly from their supervisor, only 33 percent reported receiving information in this manner. The largest percentage of employees, 35 percent, said they receive information from co-workers, rather than supervisors.

To avoid this communication failure, effective organizations build a strong sense of identification with strategy into all processes. At the first sign of disengagement, communication and candid conversation can re-engage the employee and strengthen the relationship.

Leo Brajkovich, executive consultant in the West Coast region for Minneapolis-based Gantz Wiley Research, says, “Studies show that high-performing employees tend to have a more strategic outlook ... and tend to place a higher premium on the strategic direction of the company.”

As an example of engagement, Mahbuba Ferdousi has worked in Emory's academic and administrative IT department for nearly 18 years and has held a number of roles in the university. She is now project manager, special projects, part of the operations and infrastructure services group.

As a long-term engaged employee, Ferdousi is qualified to speak about the importance of a clearly defined IT strategy and its contribution to Emory's workplace culture. “When we are executing against a strategy that we understand and are contributing to the university's success, we are more engaged,” she says.

For Ann Stunden, CIO, University of Wisconsin at Madison, improving communication and engagement starts with more opportunities for staff training and collaboration. The university has nearly 750 IT people (including students) on a staff supporting more than 40,000 students. Wisconsin has a five-year plan and a parallel IT plan that supports the university's technology goals.

Stunden helps align training with strategy and improves collaboration and communication skills among critical members of the IT team. Her most promising staff members receive professional and leadership training opportunities, as well as collaborative involvement with professional associations and peer forums.

“When people get the right training and exposure to smart peers, great ideas and great execution, communication improves – and retention, engagement and satisfaction increase,” Stunden says.

Getting Satisfaction

Many IT employees say the personal rewards of working in education are more important than slight differences in pay. IT organizations seeking to reduce restlessness should tap into this passion and emphasize the lifelong learning opportunities afforded by working in a higher education setting.

William Graves, senior vice president for academic strategy at SunGard Higher Education, Malvern, Pa., and professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, points to key reasons why IT workers forgo higher paying jobs in the private sector to work for a college: “the internal reward of working for a common-good, high-value cause; the laid-back management style; the interesting work involved in applying IT to the learning process; and the excitement inherent in an eclectic faculty and student body.”

Universities have learned from their experiences, says Cynthia Golden, vice president of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit higher education association in Boulder, Colo., and Washington, D.C., and a former CIO at Duquesne University.

“In the dot-com years, many of our best were lured away by startup companies promising big salaries and flexibility,” Golden recalls. “During that time, many institutions became more savvy about promoting the benefits of working for a college or university.

“What we have going for us is our mission: We are focused on teaching, learning, research and service, and we have remained true to this mission over time. [For many,] this mission creates greater satisfaction with the work.”

When people are considering an IT job at a university, Golden encourages them to look at the school's mission and consider the quality-of-life issues and opportunities (such as generous tuition reimbursement) that might not be available in the private sector. She acknowledges that compensation remains important. That's why many institutions have developed separate salary scales for IT employees.

“We're not competing with the university up the street for IT staff,” Golden explains. “We're competing with local industries.”

Gantz Wiley's Brajkovich advises employers to bring in people who have demonstrated a propensity to be engaged. Since technical employees are trained to be problem-solvers, he says, there is a correlation between their ability to solve problems for customers and their key engagement drivers.

Brajkovich believes employees who claim the highest levels of overall job satisfaction are often working in organizations in which they have significant autonomy. This autonomy can be directed to solving problems or to personal freedom to affect the customer.

“The emphasis on doing visible, high-quality work that directly touches the customer is important for technologists,” he says. “For IT functions without a direct line of sight to the customer, it falls on management to demonstrate the connection via communication.”

A Great Place to Work

David Foote, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners, a New Canaan, Conn., IT workforce research consultancy that published a study on IT talent retention strategies, stresses that higher education's ability to attract and retain IT talent typically depends on factors that are different from those of large private sector enterprises.

Higher education, he says, “is one of a handful of industries with high IT spend as a percentage of business-process (customer support, marketing) spend. That means the average IT worker in higher education has more operations and customer-facing responsibilities in addition to tech duties.”

Foote compares the environment in higher education to working for a small-to-medium business. “IT workers within both higher education and the SMB sector enjoy multiple responsibilities and are immersed in an environment that rewards lifelong learning,” he says. “These people need – and want – to maintain close relationships with internal and external customers, and expect [to have] a direct impact on the business for their efforts.”

The evolution of IT from a support role to a strategic role makes a college environment even more attractive to IT professionals.

“Once IT has a seat at the table,” predicts Bruce Metz, CIO at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, “you usually see significant advances in how an institution's mission is carried out, as well as major improvements in customer satisfaction and employee engagement.”

Engagement is “not just about salary,” Gantz Wiley's Brajkovich points out. “Almost everyone is looking for a promising future, a decent boss, and a chance to make an impact and do what they do best.

“IT leaders who maximize the talents of their employees by letting them better connect with customers can create competitive advantage. Management that understands and acts on this has a significant recruiting and retention tool.”

Ben Bradley is a Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based writer.

Ask the Right Questions

Jim Concelman, manager of leadership development at Development Dimensions International in Bridgeville, Pa., recommends that managers regularly assess their own abilities by asking the following questions:

• Do employees have a good understanding of what they should be doing in their jobs?

• Are employees kept well informed about changes in the organization that affect their workgroups?

• Does each workgroup make efficient use of its resources, time and budget?

• Are meetings focused and efficient?

• Are people held accountable for low performance?

Career Path

A study of 2.2 million workers across 2,100 U.S. organizations conducted by the Chicago-based management consulting firm HR Solutions in 2006 found that the possibility of career advancement helps increase employee engagement.

Promotions/Career Advancement

My job responsibilities contribute to my professional development: 73%

This organization provides me the opportunity to improve my professional knowledge and job skills: 67%

This organization makes an effort to help employees improve themselves: 58%

If I had the skills required for some other job in the organization, I know that I would be considered for transfer to that job: 53%

I am satisfied with the past job promotions I have received: 40%

Promotions at this organization are based on performance: 36%

I am satisfied with my future prospects for promotions: 35%

Job promotions in this organization are fair and objective: 34%

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