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Job well done? Better ways to assess tech employees

April 1, 2013 06:00 AM ET

While Philips Healthcare does have a formal performance development process -- which includes an annual goal-setting session and a midyear formal review where managers meet with their workers and provide written feedback -- the company's ongoing, informal performance-review mechanisms are more likely to capture the business value Olive is after.

How you evaluate [IT performance] is really about what you're doing for the business and what value you add.
Stephen Olive, Philips Healthcare

Managers use "assessors," key people surrounding individual IT workers, to gather feedback on that employee's performance, which can then be used to better evaluate his or her strengths and weaknesses, explains Jean Scire, senior director of information systems at Philips, who reports to Olive. Depending on the project, an employee's direct manager, a business unit colleague or the business unit lead on a project could serve as an assessor. Employees generally have two assessors, Scire says, and their comments are formally documented.

The frequency of gathering this type of feedback varies, but managers are expected to do so on an ongoing basis. The goal, she says, is to ensure that there aren't any surprises when the midyear and year-end formal meetings roll around.

Olive says these assessments help ensure IT workers are evolving to keep pace with changing job requirements.

The ongoing, informal evaluations allow managers to identify and coach staff members who aren't performing up to snuff or move them into positions that better fit their strengths. And it allows management to recognize outstanding work through both feedback and formal recognition programs -- both great for morale, he says.

Above all, the process ensures IT as a department is serving the business, Olive says.

"We want to align IT much more strongly to the business and have IT be a real strategic partner, and that requires a different type of IT than your traditional IT, which I characterize as being project-centric, where you're evaluating with internal perspectives, where you look at cost and time," Olive says.

"With this business alignment, how you evaluate [performance] is really about what you're doing for the business and what value do you add."

Walking the walk

CIOs and IT management consultants stress that this evolving approach to performance monitoring and evaluation requires a lot from managers. They must be interacting with workers and their business unit colleagues often enough and openly enough to hear and see when systems are making the desired improvements, when collaborations are happening as they should, when projects are progressing as intended -- and when they're not.

That means taking the time to talk to them about a job well done or soliciting nominations for the company's monthly excellence in IT recognition program or working one-on-one with a employee who's missing milestones to figure out why, Scire says.

"You have to know your employees well enough to have those open communications," she observes.

Mitre CIO Jacobs agrees. "We've been increasingly pushing our [managers] towards 'meaningful conversation' rather than compliance to a checklist," he says. "But even though it's a conversation, it's not just chitchat. There's a method to it -- a method that aligns to what our company is trying to achieve."

Key IT performance metrics

The modern IT shop should look at the impact its staff has on the business and be evaluated accordingly, says Rachel Russell, marketing director of TEKsystems Inc., which last year released a performance management survey and a report, Create a Winning Team by Leveraging a Performance Management System.

To do so, IT departments should ask the following questions, Russell says:

  • What is the impact of the individual's or team's work on the bottom line? Does it generate revenue or cut costs -- or both?
  • How well does the worker or team satisfy customer needs?
  • Is the individual or team delivering on operational effectiveness or efficiency -- or both?
  • Does the individual or team have a positive impact on other workers and resources in the organization?

As for implementing a performance evaluation strategy that works, Russell advises IT managers to do the following:

  • Set clear expectations on what you think qualifies as great performance, even if not all expectations are quantifiable.
  • Determine and articulate the mechanisms for performance feedback, both formal and informal.
  • Give feedback promptly. Great performance deserves recognition right away so employees are encouraged to do more, while poor performance warrants coaching and discussion so workers know they need to get better.
  • Be precise and direct. Use examples of what went well and what didn't rather than giving ambiguous analysis.
  • Be constructive. Russell advises: "Beyond just saying, 'This isn't what I wanted,' say 'This is what I would have wanted you to do instead.'"
  • Deliver feedback face to face when possible, Russell adds, "so you can have a relationship-building performance-management conversation."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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