Other Voices: The Challenge Of Engagement

How do you motivate disillusioned IT professionals? The authors of a new Towers Perrin survey offer some useful advice.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 11, 2003

6 Min Read

As we near the end of 2003, the economic tea leaves suggest a recovery may be gaining strength. The data also show that a gradual improvement may be taking place in IT spending. Research firm IDC forecasts IT spending growth between 6% and 7% within the next two years. But the silver lining of increasing investment brings with it a thundercloud. As we review our most recent study of IT worker attitudes, we wonder whether technology managers fully grasp the challenges they now face. Given the trauma of the last few years, can they field a workforce willing to invest the time and brainpower needed to meet the IT needs of a recovering economy? Specifically, we think IT managers must ask themselves two questions: How has the technology slump really affected the attitudes of IT workers? What has to happen now to get people engaged, or re-engaged, in their work?

In the last several months, our firm has surveyed several thousand IT employees, from senior executives to hourly technicians. The results of the Towers Perrin 2003 Talent Report tell us a great deal about the state of employee attitudes; to help put this in context, we also examined study data compiled prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The data also reveal issues that IT managers must deal with as they look to a possible upturn in the fortunes of the technology function.

For familiar reasons--continued outsourcing of technology jobs, unrelenting cost pressure, persistent efforts by companies to downsize manager ranks, growing unwillingness of organizations to invest in technical training--IT employees express more skepticism about financial matters and job security than do workers in other departments.

Job Uncertainty

In 2001, only 26% of IT workers said jobs were harder to find than they had been a year earlier. Today we see a significant deterioration from the pre-Sept. 11 attitude: 55% of IT workers say that finding a job has gotten harder.

Surprisingly, IT employees are emerging from the slump with their willingness to work remarkably intact. As we see it, they went from "irrational exuberance" (Alan Greenspan's ringing phrase) to stunned resignation. Our analysis suggests they have now reached a state we might call "rational endurance." They say they understand how their units contribute to organizational success and how their personal roles relate to organizational goals. Most important, the large majority of IT workers say they're willing to invest effort beyond what's normally expected to contribute to organizational success.

Components of Engagement
Hardy and enduring they may be, but are they (or can they be) engaged in contributing to the hoped-for upswing in technology activity? Engagement is the catalyst that turns latent energy into productive power; it converts willingness to work hard into actual effort. As we looked into the state of engagement expressed by IT workers, we discovered findings both gratifying and sobering.

We define engagement along two distinct dimensions--rational and emotional. Rational engagement speaks to the intellectual commitment people have to their organizations and the understanding they have of how they can help their companies succeed. Emotional engagement goes more toward the visceral connections between people and their organizations. It also incorporates the fulfillment people derive from their jobs. On our 100-point engagement index, IT employees rated their rational engagement at 80, compared with 65 for emotional engagement.

What Employees ThinkGiven the bumps and bruises incurred over the past few years, these results aren't surprising. From a rational perspective, people want to help their companies succeed--for one thing, they know their jobs depend on the organization's success. But from an emotional perspective, many people find it hard to get too excited about their work or their workplaces. The chart below shows just how critical they are of the work environment. They wonder about the quality of supervision they receive, the organization's support for a balance between work and home life, and the way their organizations recognize the highest performers. Clearly, perceptions of the workplace have deteriorated since the exuberant days. We also noticed another sinister element in the state of employee engagement. The three pie charts below indicate the relationship between overall levels of engagement in IT and employee intention to remain with their present organizations.

Engaged Or Not

The good news is that highly engaged employees express nearly twice as much inclination to stay with an organization (and invest their discretionary effort) as do those who are moderately engaged. The bad news is that most disengaged people are likely to stay right where they are. And the longer they stay, the more opportunity they have to express their lack of engagement in mediocre work and nonchalance about organizational success.

A Three-Level Response
Now consider how all this looks through the lens of a constricting labor market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the supply of labor will be tighter in IT than anywhere else, once the underlying trends of worker supply and demand begin to reassert themselves. Of the 10 fastest-growing occupations between now and 2010, the first seven will be in IT.

Our analysis suggests that the winners in the next battle for IT talent will distinguish themselves as employers along three dimensions:

First, to attract talent, they will get the basics right--providing competitive base pay and health-care benefits, affording work/life balance, ensuring people have challenging work, and aggressively providing learning and development opportunities.

Then, to retain people, they will concentrate on the foundation elements of work and work environment--ensuring career-advancement opportunities, constantly upgrading the caliber of IT employees, providing access to leading-edge technology, always acting with integrity, and rigorously assessing performance and rewarding excellence.

Finally, to engage people rationally and emotionally, they will make the organization and the job irresistibly appealing--reinforcing a consistent customer orientation, pushing true decision-making authority down into the organization, promoting and reinforcing the image of the company, and building an environment that fosters collaboration.

There's no skipping steps and no substituting one element for another (high pay doesn't make up for boring jobs or foreshortened promotion ladders). The smartest organizations have already been moving for some time to put this three-level set of factors in place. Economic recovery, like time and tide, wait for no one, least of all IT managers who fail to grasp the power--and the challenge--inherent in employee engagement.

Thomas O. Davenport ([email protected]) is a principal in the San Francisco office of Towers Perrin, a worldwide consulting firm specializing in the development and implementation of human-resource strategy. He heads its Organization and Employee Research practice in the Western region. He is the author of the book Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It (Jossey-Bass, 1999).

Darryl R. Roberts ([email protected]) is a senior consultant with Towers Perrin's Organization and Employee Research practice in Irvine, Calif. His book in this area is Work Culture, Organizational Performance, And Business Success: Measurement and Management (Quorum Books; 1998).

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