Hiring And Motivating The Best IT Workers

Technology Staff Editor
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A company's financial success highly correlates to the motivation level of its employees, as proved by large bodies of research. When a company possesses the right factors for motivating its workforce, the most capable employees are attracted to it, and once on board, they'll enthusiastically use their talents and abilities to make the company successful. One evolving organizational attribute being used to attract and motivate employees--younger employees, in particular--is a workplace that lets them participate in directing the work of the company. It just makes sense that employees--of all generations--would be more highly motivated in a participative culture in which they have more control over the success of their company. This is especially critical for IT organizations, because projections indicate an increasing dearth of technically competent employees. Con-way's IT organization has a team-based culture that actively engages employees in decision making and continuous improvement initiatives. We have a defined decision-making model that places as many decisions as possible into the hands of nonmanagement employees. And we're implementing "lean" management techniques, based on the practices of Toyota, a leader in this business philosophy, to solidify practices that engage employees in improving our services. Our culture has been fundamental in attracting and motivating some of the best minds in IT, including the younger generations. EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES Con-way's IT department operates using a participatory management style in which employees are charged with making key decisions about their projects. Team members determine the details of the business problem to be solved, the design of the system, the relevant pieces of the project methodology to be used, and how to assemble the technological solution. Because the teams know the details far better than management, they're empowered to make most of the decisions about their work. The management structure, therefore, can be less hierarchical and flatter. Management's role is to coach, support, and monitor the teams. Organizational charts are built upside down, with leaders and management shown on the bottom, to denote their supporting roles. Our IT culture was a major asset in helping us grow the IT organization, which was formed in the late 1990s. Then, as now, the market for competent IT employees was very tight. We needed to add hundreds of highly qualified employees, and Con-way IT was virtually unknown in the regional market. We intentionally created an environment that would attract candidates and gain a reputation for being one of the best IT organizations in which to work. The participative culture turned out to be very attractive. Once on board, employees would do whatever was needed to make the organization successful because they felt ownership in it. And because employees conducted many of the interviews of job candidates, they sold candidates on the fact that Con-way was a great place to work. Since IT solutions must be delivered by teams of people working together, one of the most important behaviors we needed to foster was teamwork. To promote collaborative behavior in the IT organization, we developed a document called the Team Charter. It was written by all employees in the IT group at that time, both management and nonmanagement, and it outlines the code of behavior that we expect from all employees. The Team Charter outlines a conflict-resolution process whereby employees must express disagreements openly and aren't allowed to talk behind someone else's back. Each employee goes through formal training on how best to communicate and resolve conflicts in a team. The Team Charter also outlines a critical-incident analysis process where, if an employee believes another employee or manager didn't follow the charter, he or she can request a facilitated discussion that ferrets out what happened and if the behavior could have been better aligned with our culture. A formal decision-making framework on which each employee is trained specifies which decisions are made by team members and which by management. The focus is on giving as much decision-making power to team members as possible, because they're the most knowledgeable and because it drastically increases their engagement and buy-in. Even for management decisions, such as organizational structure and strategy, employees are encouraged to provide input through focus groups, an online suggestion box, town hall meetings, and team meetings with leaders where employees can ask questions and air concerns. All managers are trained in active listening techniques. In order to make the right decisions, teams must understand where the company is headed. We use town halls and team meetings with clients to ensure that each team member fully understands business and IT strategy, as well as tactical goals. Each team is periodically assessed on how well members understand the company's goals, as well as how the team's goals support company goals and how individual goals support team goals. The leaders of the IT organization consistently demonstrate to employees how specific IT initiatives generate profit for the company. Therefore, employees feel highly valued and strongly connected to the company, and they understand how to make decisions that have optimum impact on profitability. Our performance-evaluation process is key in motivating employees to make the right decisions for the company and in enforcing teamwork. Evaluation criteria are tied directly to company goals, and employees are evaluated based on how well their activities achieve those goals. Employees also are evaluated on how well they perform as members of a team. If in any way they make themselves look good at the expense of others, they won't advance and won't receive significant compensation increases. Furthermore, there's a structured process where employees periodically give co-workers feedback on how they can be better teammates. Over the last year, we've been implementing lean continuous improvement techniques, which provide a powerful method to engage all employees in improving the organization. This lean approach provides tools and techniques that guide teams through evaluating the effectiveness of their processes and work methods, identifying opportunities for improvement, and designing and implementing the improvements. Although many organizations are adopting a lean strategy, and harvesting low-hanging fruit, full benefits from it can be achieved only when employees' thought processes focus on improving company performance. Employees must look for opportunities and use initiative to improve product quality, enhance customer service, and reduce costs by eliminating waste. This will happen only when employees feel ownership in the organization and--especially for the younger generations--only by engaging them in decision making and running the business. Our participative culture has helped employees feel this ownership. EFFORT EARNS ACCOLADES The participative culture in Con-way IT has paid off. Several years ago, over a period of three years, the IT group took Con-way's e-business services from a competitive negative to consistent top industry ranking. And the group successfully completed a multiyear technology upgrade of the company's systems, achieving what a previous IT group had failed to do four separate times. The current IT group consistently receives very high ratings from executive satisfaction surveys and wins some of the highest-profile industry awards. To ensure that participative cultures create the most effective organizations, some cautions are in order. Even though the younger generations are independent and want to be empowered, management needs to provide frequent, results-oriented, and specific feedback to make sure employees are on the right path. Care must be taken to ensure that employees with decision-making authority have the information needed to make those decisions. Furthermore, entire teams should make decisions only when the knowledge to do so is dispersed among the team members. Otherwise, if individuals have the right knowledge to make decisions, it's wasteful to involve the entire team. And management must actively monitor team decisions. Motivating the workforce today and into the future will require different policies and practices than in the past. Participative cultures have been shown to contribute greatly to organizational success and are especially attractive to the younger generations.

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