Streamlining Performance Reviews

How productive are your employees? That's every organization's big question. Employee performance management systems aim to provide an answer. But do their metrics measure what truly matters?

By evaluating employees' degree of engagement, a performance management system can "definitely impact the productivity you get from your workforce in many dimensions" and enhance your ability to retain talent, says Jim Holincheck, a research vice president at Gartner Group, in Chicago, Ill. But, he warns, "It can be a double-edged sword. If you don't use it right, it could de-motivate people and you'll have performance and productivity decline."

Getting Your Money's Worth
Depending on the industry, companies are spending between 20 percent and 70 percent of their budgets on people-related costs, Holincheck says. They obviously want to improve the return on their investment.

Typically in larger companies, "both the manager and the company want to see that they're getting the bang for their buck and make sure they're getting maximum performance from each person," concurs Cathy Shepard, principal in the human capital practice at Mercer, in Los Angeles, Calif.

Performance management systems are especially useful at keeping track of who gets paid what, so companies are able to easily assess whether the people getting higher salaries are performing the best. (article continues)

Customized Appraisals
At many companies, the appraisal process is unwieldy and in need of streamlining. Managers often still write up performance appraisals in Microsoft Word documents, then route the file via e-mail for approvals. Organizations typically don't have a central repository for storing the appraisals, making it difficult for the human resources department to track whether the appraisals are even getting done.

A lack of clear metrics can adversely affect employees' performance. "If results are not properly linked to rewards, the process can de-motivate the workforce," Holincheck says. Conversely, a company may have a process that rates its people and recommends rewards, but may not be rating them on right areas.

Furthermore, notes Holincheck, "It's difficult in Word to do things like goal alignment and cascading of goals and objectives from company to department so you get additional capabilities beyond the original form."

Automated performance management systems were once avoided because they had a reputation for delivering one-size-fits-all appraisals. But a new generation of applications lets companies define the criteria for an employee appraisal. The review may have sections on goals and objectives and developmental planning, as well as sections that allow a manager to rate an employee's proficiency in certain competencies.

"In one sense, it's a shell and you can put whatever you want in the form," says Holincheck. But it's important to customize the review with the right (article continues)

competencies for the right person in order to help develop the person's abilities and get the most value from the system.

Performance management systems vendors, such as Success Factors and Halogen Software, let managers load up appraisal forms with goals and objectives that can be drilled down for further detail, as well as sections that assess competency and recommend further development.

Some systems also have mechanisms that help the supervisors who are preparing reviews. Q&As and a reporting mechanism enable supervisor to keep track of their progress in the periodic flood of performance reviews.

Same Time Next ... Month?
Managers and employees alike tend to dread the annual review. It's a huge time choke for managers and a source of anxiety for employees. Automated review systems make it easy for managers and employees to take the pulse of their performance more frequently and with less at stake.

"One of the opportunities with a tool is to have more regular feedback for employees. When you have a conversation with someone, you can capture that," says Holincheck. By enabling -- and even encouraging -- managers to keep tabs throughout the year, an automated system will provide an accurate picture of an employee's performance in a manner that's as pain-free as possible.

Project Management Best Practices

The individual who was born to be a project manager is a rarity. If you've been given the title (and the responsibilities that go along with it), you may have had little or no prior training. Your expertise may be in traditional management or the specific subject matter or technical knowledge needed for the project at hand. Some quick studying, a little consulting and some common sense would probably allow you to muddle through the project management process.

But there are other actions you can take to be truly effective. The following represent best practices for meeting project challenges head on -- and emerging victorious.

Build a Solid Team
According to Scott Berkun, a former Microsoft program manager who's now a consultant based in Seattle, Wash., the best way to manage a project and complete it successfully is to select an "all-star" team. "You do always want stars -- provided they are stars that will fit with the team," he says. "If you can't find a star that fits the team, you want the best possible person that does fit."

But Jeff Davidson, executive director of the Breathing Space Institute in Chapel Hill, N.C., has a different view. "The best single measure to ensure that team members stay on track and on time is really to assemble a team composed of individuals who have a demonstrated history of doing just that," he says.

Chart Your Progress
In most cases, however, your team is assigned to you, and the best method for keeping a team on track -- and communicating clearly -- is to post a graph that shows project progress and has each person's progress charted in some way. This way, says Davidson, "everyone can look up on the chart and see what everyone else is doing."

But this method only works when the project manager has already plotted out realistic assessments of what each team member can offer, says Davidson. In this way, goals and milestones are achievable. (article continues)

Keep in Touch
According to Davidson, the project manager must meet with each team member on a regular basis to achieve this. Every team member must be asked what roadblocks they anticipate, if they're on track with goals and milestones, and what kind of support they need. "The onus is on the team member to ask for support, and to pick up the slack if they didn't ask for support and are creating a roadblock," he says.

A chart that plots the entire project "works so well that you don't have to even talk about needing to stay on track," Davidson says. He cautions that when working with talented people, project managers should be on the lookout for overconfidence, which may lead team members to understate the amount of time a task will take. The best method for addressing this tendency is to allocate about 25 percent more time than the team member(s) estimate. "If they think it's going to take ten hours, you should budget twelve-and-a-half hours," he says.

Create a Risk Plan
Rick Brenner of Chaco Canyon Consulting in Cambridge, Mass., argues that the key factor in developing a plan and ensuring that the team members will stay on track and on time is a good risk plan. A risk plan is an examination of what could go wrong during the project, and the costs in time and money to correct for those things.

"You hardly ever see one," says Brenner. "There's a certain reluctance to look at the dark side, and project managers are uncomfortable thinking about risk in general." The risk plan will, most importantly, factor in turnover effects -- the impact, for example, of unexpectedly needing to train new personnel or outsource tasks or positions. (article continues)

Achieve Consensus
David Maxfield, the vice president of research at Vitalsmarts in Provo, Utah, believes that communication is the key to a team's success, and it all starts with buy-in. "Everyone on the team must agree on and share the business case, and feel there's a clear business imperative," he says. Part of the agreement must also center around the roles of team members -- their responsibilities and the steps needed to complete their deliverables on time.

Davidson agrees that being in on the groundwork is key for participants. But how do you get buy-in? You may not, but you can get consensus on the project plan. "If you have one person who is reticent, you ask them to go along with you and when indicators emerge, you'll take action based on their forewarning," says Davidson. "You can even have a contingency plan."

But after that initial step, says Maxfield, "The challenge is discussing your concerns early and often enough to catch problems before they get out of hand. You need to have frequent crucial conversations. Don't wait for concerns to get big." Crucial conversations aren't part of a formal process, but they can be the most critical tool for keeping a project on track and on time. "If you don't have these conversations, no amount of structure can save you," he says.

Discussing areas of conflict can be daunting, but that doesn't mean the conversations shouldn't be encouraged. "Project managers can make it clear that they are approachable, and let team members know they'll be talking to them frequently to offer support, check up on status, etc." And along the way, they can encourage team members to bring concerns to the project manager, says Maxfield.

Self-Promotion on the Job

It's harder to move up the IT career ladder within your organization these days because the rungs don't stay put.

With downsizing, outsourcing, off-shoring and ever-shrinking corporate budgets, IT job slots are often re-named, redefined or replaced. The good news is that industry analysts report the field is healthy despite the rapid-fire changes, and that opportunities in 2007 are plentiful.

How can you make the most of those opportunities and move ahead? According to industry experts, it can be a matter of using smart and tactful self-promotion techniques.

"Self-promotion is truly an art form," says Melanie Robbins, host of "Make It Happen with Mel Robbins," a career coaching program heard on Sirius Satellite Radio, suggests, "If you are too overt, you risk coming across to upper management as an irritant. And if your colleagues see you doing it, you risk alienating them and creating resentment -- it will always look like you are taking credit for their hard work."

But that's not to say a direct approach may not trump more subtle methods. "When I was working my way up the ladder," relates Robert Ardell, managing partner at KoreOne Staffing in San Diego, Calif., "the best advice I received was to schedule a lunch with my boss, and even my boss' boss, and ask them, 'What do I need to do to receive a promotion?' The simpler, the better." (article continues)

According to Robbins, there are four simple steps to successful self-promotion:

  • Meet regularly with your manager and in addition to project updates, clarify what an A+ performance is in the eyes of your manager. Get specifics -- what, by when, etc.
  • Update your manager on your progress on deliverables and expectations.
  • Verbalize the career track you'd like to be to your manager (be specific!).
  • Ask for your manager's advice and support.

One added bonus to self-promotion: IT pros can choose to move up the IT ranks or springboard to other departments in the organization, a career choice that did not previously exist. "While employees were once able to start at the bottom and have a fairly easy time following a career path, IT positions may no longer be a necessary or even desirable end point for them," says Laurie Orlov, research director and vice president of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Process knowledge and diverse educational backgrounds enable IT workers to move to other functions in the enterprise or into and back from providers in the tech industry," meaning that a career path isn't necessarily pegged to a single company.

In fact, Forrester Research says its CIO and CTO interviewees confirmed that, despite a lingering nerdy image and the fact that it might still be called IT, the role of the IT group has morphed sharply from all back-office work to the front-and center interaction with business unit clients and the customers.

"Therefore, it is very important that IT pros play up their business and other experiences outside the strictly technical role in their self-promotion efforts," says Orlov. (article continues)

Experts agree, however, that self-promotion should not be limited to the confines of your current employment. 

"Most good IT managers are well known because they typically have their own blog. They belong to several user groups, are active in them and are highly regarded within those groups. Most importantly, they have a genuine desire to help others and they act on it," says Ardell.

Experts agree, however, that self promotion should not be limited to the confines of your current employment. Expand your world by looking beyond the borders of your current job function and employer and practicing these three Rs.

  • Read "In general, reading periodicals, belonging to a variety of specific technology user groups and regional user groups, such as the San Diego Cold Fusion User Group, will ensure that IT professionals remain competitive and available for interesting work," says Ardell.
  • Respect "Acknowledge the heck out of your team for doing a good job.  It will help your career tremendously if you have the good will and vote of the people who work for you. Blogging keeps your visibility up in the industry overall," says Robbins.
  • Recall "Maintain continuous contact with business constituents, internal and external. Because if you don't, they'll forget about you," says Orlov.

Moving to the next level of your career may progress along a well-defined path, but without some help from your own hands, it may not progress at all. Map out a range of possibilities and make known your desires and abilities. Then be ready to move ahead when the opportunity appears.

"To get ahead in the IT environment today, point out your business smarts and people skills, as these are the skills companies are seeking in their top IT people. Interestingly, self-promotion, when done right, illustrates both of those skills," concludes Orlov.

Management For Smarties

You've no doubt heard of great college football coaches who couldn't cut it in the NFL, or terrific salespeople who got promoted to sales manager only to find that they were much better at sales. It's the same in IT.

"The IT field is littered with great technologists who are not suited to be managers or failed at some level of management," says R. Gaines Baty, president of R. Gaines Baty Associates, a Dallas-based retained executive search firm specializing in CIO and IT management searches.

Being a good IT manager poses particular challenges to new and experienced managers alike as "there is probably nothing in the business world that changes more frequently and can obsolete itself faster than technology," states Paul Benz, the CIO at Gevity HR, an organization that conducts research into the link between good management practices and business performance.

"Involvement" Versus "Tight Controls"

A recent survey on effective employee management strategies conducted by Cornell University and sponsored by Gevity Institute looked at two common management styles. One was described as management through involvement, or allowing reports to essentially manage themselves. The other was described as management through tight control. Companies with the former management style, whose managers used a consensus-building approach, showed significant growth in revenue and profit. Additionally, the companies that used self-management strategies had much lower employee turnover than those that didn't. (article continues)

What behaviors do bad managers exhibit? According to Baty, they are individuals who:

  • Can't get things done
  • Have poor project management skills
  • Lack an understanding of the technologies they're using
  • Lack motivational skills

"Micromanagers, yellers and screamers, people who take credit for what others have done, who sell their employees down the river, point fingers and have an obviously authoritarian style are not popular these days," says Baty.

Improving Your Management Style
"Eighty percent of folks, I have found, will make the effort to be a better manager," says Benz. Most will find it easy to do. Some will require some additional coaching and counseling and the rest will be resistant to change.

According to Baty, "The most successful people, whether CEO, CIO, or C-anything, are the ones that learn from their mistakes." If you are a strategic thinker who can assess a situation and act accordingly, build a consensus and contribute to the bottom line, there's a great opportunity to really grow, make a real difference in a corporation and build a great career.

What are the most common attributes of effective managers? According to Baty and Benz, the good ones:

  • Don't play favorites. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of each employee, and that team dynamics will suffer if individuals receive preferential treatment.
  • Give credit where credit is due. They acknowledge good work and give kudos to those directly responsible.
  • Let their employees make mistakes -- and help them to learn from them. They encourage their reports to take on new challenges, self-manage and provide helpful feedback.
  • Know how to manage up as well as down. They understand it is important to keep supervisors informed of their team's progress, and make them aware of areas that are potentially problematic.
  • Recognize that their success as well as the organization's success is inseparable from their team's success. Good managers are strategic thinkers who seek to improve processes and procedures and build a consensus within their department to ensure that goals are met. (article continues)

Until the mid-to-late 1990s, most organizations were not too technologically savvy. As a result, IT managers could often get by on their technical know-how alone. Today, however, with marketing, sales and finance people much savvier about computing, IT managers must not only be knowledgeable about existing and emerging technologies but about dealing and communicating with other departments, as well as senior management.

Clearly, the bar has been raised for IT managers. But for those who take the time to hone their management chops by developing their communication skills and reaching out across the organization to help define and achieve business-wide objectives, the field is wide open.

Can Certification Make a Difference?

Does industry certification for IT workers still matter? It depends on whom you ask. But most industry experts will tell you that technology skills are just one piece of what employers look for in their workforce.

"Of course certifications matter, but do they matter in the scheme of everything employers are looking for in IT workers? Less than they used to,'' says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer of Foote Partners, an IT workforce and compensation research consultancy in New Caanan, Conn.

Before the Internet, IT was in the business of increasing productivity by automating tasks and allowing companies to do things more cheaply and faster. But that has changed as business has increasingly moved to the Web. Technology is "right up against the customer," says Foote, "and Web systems are used to conduct business." That means technology has actually become the product in a lot of companies.

"So when employers look at who to put in those jobs," says Foote, "they think of tech skills, but also how well an applicant knows the customer, his industry experience and maybe even solution experience." For example, a health care company may be willing to train someone on Oracle database if that person has had five to seven years working in the industry.

"If they find that person but they're not certified, they say 'Who cares?' It's not necessary that they have certification,'' Foote observes. The importance of certification -- and paying a premium for it -- has diminished over the years because employers are interested in other things in workers, he maintains.

"It's more than just pure technology; it's about the industry experience in addition to technical skills and who is experienced in the type of customers they're selling to," Foote says, "because you're delivering a lot of business over the internet and never talking to people." (article continues)

Matters of Concern
IT workers remain steadfastly concerned about certification. According to results of a biannual survey of more than 1,000 IT workers, just released by tech career site Dice, 82 percent of tech professionals cite the ability to keep their skills up-to-date as a strong area of concern. Further, when asked to assess their employer's encouragement and support of skills development, one-third of tech professionals say it is only "fair" or "poor." Only 26 percent rated their employers' performance in this area as "excellent," with 40 percent of respondents rating it as "good."

"Certification is important still,'' says Paul Melde, vice president of technology at Dice, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa. "I'm not sure if the criticality of a few years ago was really as critical as we all thought it was, but I think it's a great way to demonstrate a basic competence in a technology."

A Competitive Issue
Certification has to be backed up with demonstrable work experience, Melde adds. Dice gets a lot of job postings specifying certifications, especially in contract positions, he says. Some of the ones that routinely come up are Microsoft certified engineers (MSCE), Cisco certification (CCIE) and project management certification (PMP), he says.

In terms of pay, "With certification coupled with experience, it would keep you at the upper end of what the market is in your area,'' Melde says. "The ongoing education it represents gets back to what tech professionals were discussing in the survey -- keeping skills up to date."

Yet, Foote's research shows that in the last 12 months, pay for non-certified skills is up an average of seven percent, while in the same period, the average pay for certified skills is down 1.2 percent. Non-certified skills may include application development, networking and operating systems. Certified skills include IT security, Web development, and database management, Foote says.

"What's interesting is we have not seen, on a quarterly basis, certification losing value since 2004. So, it's a big deal that for first time in two years in this last quarter, certification skills are negative numbers; they're going in the other direction,'' Foote says. (article continues)

While some certifications are "so easy to get it's laughable," Foote concurs with Melde that certifications from Cisco and The Project Management Institute absolutely guarantee a bump in pay.  Similarly, security certifications such as CISSP and CISP, and some of the certifications offered by Novell and Oracle are likely to draw increased compensation.

For the past seven years, rapid application development/extreme programming is the highest paying skill, whether certified or non-certified, according to the Foote Partners' 3rd Quarter 2006 Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index survey of pay for 253 IT skills, which included 55,000 U.S. and Canadian IT workers.

But overall, Foote emphasizes that "more and more companies are finding they have to pay the individual, not the job."