Managing IT Workers Takes a Balancing Act

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - I thought I'd be taking the ultimate "gut course" when I signed up for something called "Ecology" in high school. A little light reading and a field trip every third class to an outdoor location for a pleasant stroll to observe nature's miracles up close - I figured I'd forget most of it quickly and end up with a great tan.

But it turned out that this class brimmed with relevance and wisdom about everyday things. We observed and learned about delicately balanced systems holding the plant and animal worlds together: highly interdependent "ecosystems," where nothing happens in isolation but rather as a result of something else, and things fit together quite nicely when everything's going well.

The ecosystem principle is the perfect metaphor for what is essential to successfully managing IT workers in today's brutal labor market. I call it the "human infrastructure ecosystem," and understanding how it works is what separates great employers who build on their successes from those whose people-management practices are dangerously hit-or-miss.

Take employee retention. Of the 700 employers whose management practices my company tracks annually, most are experimenting in a disjointed fashion with numerous tactics to hang onto their people. Few have what could be called comprehensive or highly coordinated retention plans, and as a result they're often unable to sustain any hard-fought gains. They're just trying to keep up.

What they're missing is the bigger ecosystem picture of critical interrelationships and interdependencies among the various components of a well-oiled human infrastructure.

To start, employers need to think more carefully about the interplay of their salary, incentive-and-reward and performance management practices - and about the messages these practices send to employees about how to get ahead in the company. Next, they must continually connect their workers' activities to overall career aspirations, craft individual development plans and provide coaching and training to help employees reach their potential. Carefully woven into this should be comprehensive integrated recruiting and selection strategies and programs built on top of nonintrusive assessments of skills that are on hand, those that are needed now and those that will be needed in the future. Employers must ask themselves, "Which skills and competencies should be purchased on the open market, and which can be developed internally or rented via contractors and consultants, and how can we build consistency and flexibility into the process?" And if they expect to continue to lose people, what are the backup plans for maintaining equilibrium on teams and critical projects and in departments and divisions?

And this is just a small piece of the whole picture of the human infrastructure ecosystem. Tying it all together are core competencies in enterprise (vs. traditional) project management; open communication among management and workers; a work environment and culture that make workers feel safe, desired and respected; and continuous leadership and management development programs.

Finally, and perhaps the hardest thing to achieve: The ecosystem and its many elements must connect to corporate goals and objectives.

Anything else and you're doomed to fail, no matter how well you might be doing in the short run. If you focus on balance and managing the interrelationships, you'll get better, longer-lasting results. Maybe you'll even have time to get out for a stroll in the park.

DAVID FOOTE is managing partner and research director at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Connecticut, an IT workforce research and advisory firm. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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