IT staff and bonded labour: not that different?

Are poorly performing IT staff - like bonded labourers - tied to jobs they hate because they desperately need the lump sum payment at the end? If so, IT managers should look for better ways to motivate the wage-slaves

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But on its own the “get tough” option is a pretty inadequate response. It hardly seems likely to leverage good performances from disconnected workers and it may hit the morale of some very good workers. Adam Smith went on to say: “The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any…”

In other words, people who are working under these conditions do not offer value for money.

Obviously employers could loosen the economic chains and release demotivated workers – by offering generous exit packages. There would probably be a good economic case for doing that, but the problem is that this would be seen as rewarding the uncommitted.

At a time when the Blair era is ending, it may be appropriate to adapt one of Tony Blair’s slogans: tough on disengagement, tough on the causes of disengagement.

In a review carried out at the turn of the year, we identified that the need for new career propositions for IT workers is the biggest single issue facing IT people today. What exactly is the “deal” offered by employers today? The old proposition, which involved skilled technical work, expansion, career opportunity, marketable skills, generous pay and perks, is not on offer in many big employers today.

And it’s not clear what has replaced it.

Like the bonded workers of old, many IT workers today are not sure what’s in it for them if they work really hard at their jobs. Sure, there might be a bonus at the end of the year. But there might also be news that their system is to be maintained offshore from now on. Or that their job is moving to an onshore vendor. Everyone knows how crippling uncertainty is, and I believe that it is job and career uncertainty that is causing the commitment of many in IT to falter.

Chief information officers and IT directors must, in my view, focus on getting faster answers to the resourcing dilemmas they face, and on communicating the answers more quickly to those affected by them. Rapid implementation will help, too. The aim should be to clarify the end-game sooner – and to reach it sooner.

Where this is done, IT people can get on with their jobs. If they don’t want to do those jobs, then they have to be confronted. But just as many bonded workers gave a very good day’s work to employers who treated them well, so will most of today’s ageing IT workers who are locked in by pension rights. Strong decisive leadership will resolve many of the issues: the “bar” for IT leadership just got higher.

Iain Smith is founder of Diaz Research

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