Best Practices Are Universal

Let's say Bernhard Reiss, storage solutions manager at Compaq Computer Austria GmbH in Vienna, traded places with Diego Lopez, director of IT at software maker Objeq SA in Quito, Ecuador. Or J.J. Chan, a programmer/ analyst at the Hospital Authority of Hong Kong, took a job at Agencia Tributaria in Madrid. Certainly, all of these IT workers would need to adjust to working in different languages, cultures and climates.

Yet they would find much that's familiar about their new employers, for each stands out as one of Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT Worldwide. And while any world traveler knows that some qualities are lost in the translation among countries, much of what makes an exceptional employer does translate across borders, oceans and cultures.

"The differences across regions are subtle, not dramatic," says Alan Parker, a principal at Hewitt Associates LLC, which has offices in Europe, North America and Asia. In various Hewitt surveys of top employers around the world, Parker says the same key factors that make IT and other employees highly satisfied in their jobs are consistent: meaningful work, career opportunities and a positive work environment.

"The top three remain the top three," Parker says.

For Best Places companies, the common elements worldwide are competitive compensation packages; flat, unstructured work environments; access to challenging IT projects; and strong career development support.

Offer Flexibility in Benefits, Schedules

Best Practices Are Universal

Credit: Luba Lukova

That doesn't mean that regional differences don't exist among Best Places or color IT work environments. For example, local regulations, such as limits on workweek hours in France, or local customs, such as formal social interaction in many Asian countries, affect company cultures. And in some areas of the world, such as Latin America, concepts like work/family balance are much talked about but not widely practiced, say consultants.

Nonetheless, Best Places consistently reflect several common practices, with one key quality underlying them all: flexibility. It's apparent in everything from compensation to business structure to career development, and it is the base on which most Best Places build their best practices for IT professionals.

For example, at Best Places, it's a given that salaries will be competitive in their regional marketplaces. What sets these employers' offerings apart is the flexibility they offer IT employees in tailoring compensation packages, from salary to benefits.

For example, Ernst & Young U.K. in London gives IT professionals a menu of benefits options so they can create the compensation packages that best suit their situations, from pension contributions to health care and other insurance. The company also negotiates with its workers to help them achieve a balance between their professional and personal lives, which is a growing trend.

"In Western Europe and other places where annual leave policies are not so generous, you'll find professionals trading pay for more leave," says Andrew Milroy, who until recently was director of IDC's European Services group in London and is now director of software services and consulting at IDC Australia in Sydney. He says the opposite is also true: Some IT professionals are willing to trade in vacation time for larger salaries.

Many Best Places are also flexible about when and where IT professionals work, granting them leeway in setting their own schedules and giving them the option to work from home. Such compensation flexibility is critical to Best Places in the post-dot-com global economy, as many companies are rethinking how they treat and pay their IT professionals, say consultants.

"This hiatus in the world economy is giving companies the chance to re-evaluate the IT skills they need," says Parker. He says leading companies are now looking for more teamwork, project management and business skills in their IT professionals.

Create Unstructured Organizations

One way Best Places encourage more cross-fertilization of ideas within and outside of IT is by emphasizing flat, nonhierarchical organizational structures. "Many places have no apparent internal structures," says Milroy. "They don't have clock watchers, no blatant hierarchies, and they encourage ideas to come from everyone."

Such is true at Bankinter SA in Spain, which relies on a flat structure to give IT professionals with the most appropriate skills access to critical business projects. The same goes for Sierra Systems Group Inc., a Vancouver, British Columbia-based systems integrator and consulting firm, where there are no job titles on employees' business cards and newly hired professionals are free to lead veteran project teams. And throughout Scandinavia, IT professionals take it for granted that their bosses will listen to them whenever they have something to say.

But there are exceptions to the flat model.

"Latin American organizations are hierarchical in mentality, if not structure," says Michael Ronan, a senior consultant for the international group at New York-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting LLC (formerly William M. Mercer Inc.). Ronan specializes in the Latin American employment scene and recently completed a three-year assignment in Brazil.

Many Latin American companies still operate via bureaucracy, with power concentrated among key players and minimal knowledge-sharing, he says. "Communication is not a forte of Latin American firms," says Ronan.

Similarly, at companies in many Asian countries, more structure is still the norm, a reflection of the local cultures, says Parker. Nonetheless, Asian businesses also reflect another cultural factor: the importance of personal relationships and their impact on business. Many Best Places go to some lengths to encourage similar strong relationships among their IT professionals.

Many offer formal mentoring programs. Some augment those by sponsoring employee activities outside the office, from pig roasts at chip maker Dalsa Corp. in Canada to company sports teams, motivational seminars and formal and informal meetings at Groupe Steria SCA, a software engineering company in France.

Make Careers Challenging

A friendly work environment should also be paired with challenging projects and a rewarding career path to create a Best Place, say IT professionals and consultants.

"The economy means there is less employee sovereignty at the moment, but IT professionals, especially those in high demand, still will go elsewhere if their skills aren't being used," says Milroy.

Virtually all Best Places rely heavily on IT to both drive and enable their business goals. In turn, their IT professionals often report a high level of satisfaction in knowing that their work contributes to their company's mission.

Similarly, most Best Places tie IT career development paths to the company's overall business needs. For example, Repsol YPF, an international oil company in Madrid and Buenos Aires, offers its IT professionals personalized career development plans that stress having detailed knowledge of the company's lines of business.

The Co-operative Bank PLC in Manchester, England, has a formal career development program that encompasses professionals and their managers, encouraging flexible job responsibilities, internal promotions and a reward-based incentive structure.

Yet not all Best Places define career development in the same terms. For example, companies in many Asian countries are still quite structured, so IT professionals there may aspire more to formal promotions, say Asia-based analysts.

In Central Europe, the attributes of career development vary widely among individual countries, each of which has its own distinct culture. Poland and Hungary are perceived as leaders in salary, training and career development. In Russia, however, career opportunities and salaries for IT and other employees are often concentrated at top levels in organizations, says Cameron Hannah, head of Mercer's Central and Eastern European human resources consulting practice.

Hannah and other consultants agree that while multinational firms tend to lead best practices in Central Europe, domestic companies are eager to catch up.

"Quite a few homegrown employers there are very rapidly learning best practices," says Phil Murray, leader of Hewitt Associates' European human resources consulting practice.

So just as water has its own taste depending on where in the world it's drawn, Best Places Worldwide also have their idiosyncrasies. Yet the fact remains: Wherever they are, Best Places are touchstones for universal best practices for IT employment.

Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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