Lessons From A CIO Forum Conversation On Employee Engagement

Yesterday afternoon, I moderated a panel on the role the IT department can play in the business's employee engagement efforts. Any follower of this blog knows that this is a topic I've talked about a lot lately (see previous posts here and here) because hiring, developing and retaining talented and productive employees is critical in the Age of the Customer. The panelists were Ed Flahive, Vice President Global Learning & Development at State Street, Mike Peterson, CIO and Vice President at CHG Healthcare Services, and Ray Velez, Chief Technology Officer at Razorfish. As you've probably observed, this was an eclectic group, representing human resources, IT and client delivery groups respectively. Well, that was on purpose. This topic requires perspectives from both business leaders and technologists. Having had 24 hours to think about that discussion, I thought I would share a few a-ha's I had from my conversation with these gentlemen:

  • Engagement means different things to HR and IT leaders. The first question I posed to the group was how they defined employee engagement. Ed Flahive, representing an HR department, spoke in terms of employee retention and employee connectedness to their job. The two technologists on the panel, however, spoke in terms of engaging technology which spurred collaboration or made it easy for individuals to do their work. I found this distinction interesting because it clearly came from different focus areas -- people management vs. technology management -- and illustrated a hurdle that organizations will need to clear to successfully provide engaging experiences for employees. In the long run, HR, business and IT leaders must think about employee engagement in the same terms. For IT leaders, this means that you aren't simply creating "engaging technology," but that you're creating technology experiences that support the business's efforts to engage employees in their work. This is a subtle shift, but it is a different mindset that focuses attention on the person instead of the slickness of the technology.
  • Executive leadership paves the way to IT success. Each panelist described organizations in which employee engagement were top priorities. At State Street, employee engagement is a corporate value published on their website, and executives are goaled on the company's performance in their periodic employee engagement surveys. CHG Healthcare's executives have five core values, of which people is #1 and growth is #5 because, as Mike Peterson pointed out, if you get the people part right, growth will come. Ray Velez described Razorfish as having a talent focus which runs top-down through the organization. When I asked the group whether IT leaders could pivot to focus on employee engagement successfully without the business executives being bought-in, they said it would be difficult.
  • People in the business and people in IT still don't see eye-to-eye on consumerization. CHG's Peterson believes that if he sees shadow IT or consumerization taking off in his business he's not properly aligned with employees' needs. He also believes that when you allow employees to provision many different tools, you add complexity to the technology infrastructure that can actually inhibit productivity. State Street's Flahive and Razorfish's Velez vociferously disagreed. Ray Velez brought an interesting perspective to this conversation because he straddles the client delivery and IT lines as a CTO. He believed that allowing employees to pick whatever worked for them in their moment of need was actually liberating for employees. Some of this disagreement clearly arises from the differences in the organizations represented on stage (more on that in a moment), but I think some of it also reflects the battles IT is still fighting with the business in many organizations: Consumerization and shadow IT add complexities which affect interoperability, security and reliability, things which the IT department naturally tries to control.
  • The business's operational imperatives will dictate how IT plans for employee engagement. After the session, an audience member said to me that he found the discussion interesting because the businesses were so different, meaning the approaches would have to be different. I think this is exactly right. Each organization we asked to participate in this panel was considered a great place to work with a progressive approach to technology's role in employee engagement. Where they disagreed was in the particulars. When it came to a topic like consumerization, Ray Velez felt it was critical in his business because the consultants at Razorfish needed the flexibility to work with clients in a fashion that works for that customer. For example, on one project a consultant may need to use Box to share files with a client, but in another scenario, the client may require a specialized managed file transfer service to share sensitive material. Mike Peterson takes a different view on this because the dynamics of the workforce he serves at CHG Healthcare Services is clearly different.

Today we published two reports, CIOs Must Champion Engaging Employee Experiences and Measure Workforce Experience Through Engagement, Productivity, And Customer Impact, which pick up and expand upon the conversation we had in Washington, DC. I invite you to read these reports and to give your thoughts on some of the observations I've made about the panel.