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IT workers: You can't always guess what they want

Until you figure out what IT staffers really want, you're managing blind.

By Alan S. Horowitz
September 12, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A fast-growing part of Ken Erdner's IT group was running out of office space, so he moved them into a new area separate from the rest of the department. But Erdner failed to ask the employees what they thought, and that proved to be a mistake. He was going for comfortable and productive; the group felt isolated and resentful.

Luckily, Erdner, vice president of technology and information services at Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. in Thomasville, N.C., communicated well and often with his group, and they made their feelings known.

But his experience points to an IT reality: Managers may think they know what IT workers want, but often they don't. And there's a corollary: If you don't give IT workers what they want, the consequences can be low productivity and high turnover. "There is no acceptable level of turnover if you're losing your best people," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

Turnover, not a big problem for the past several years, may be making a comeback as competition for talent heats up. Baby boomers are starting to retire. IT groups are beginning to hire again. U.S. universities are graduating fewer computer science majors, and offshore opportunities are enabling more foreign-born workers—who used to buck up the U.S. IT workforce—to stay in their home countries. As IT workers once again begin to consider greener pastures, it's more important than ever for managers to know what their employees really want.

Get Beyond Money

The first step toward finding out is not to assume you already know. For example, if you think what workers really want is more money, think again.

"I believe that IT too quickly assumes that money is always the No. 1 driver," says Gwen Walsh, a former CIO and now a senior consultant at Ouellette & Associates Inc. in Bedford, N.H. "Money is important, but not necessarily the most important motivator."
In fact, even a bonus can sometimes seem to do more harm than good, as any manager who has ever given a smaller-than-expected one can tell you. "Compensation is more a dissatisfier than a satisfier," says Brian LeClaire, vice president and chief technology officer at health benefits company Humana Inc. in Louisville, Ky.
Many of the things IT workers actually want are fairly universal desires. For example, they want their jobs to mean something.

"When they leave at the end of the day, [IT workers want to know], Have I made a valuable contribution to the business? Am I involved with projects helping to move the business forward?" says George Hall, senior vice president for IT human resources at Marriott Corp. in Washington. "Being fulfilled in the role is still the primary driver."

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