Keeping IT Talent in Good Times

How retailers are planning to retain key IT players when the economy rebounds

In a recent discussion with a top IT executive at a major fashion retailer, RIS was asked, "What are retailers doing to secure their top IT talent in anticipation of an economic turnaround?" The premise of the question was that it is easy to keep good IT people in today's environment, but when the economy does turn around, keeping top IT talent will be a primary concern. To bring true retailer perspective to this story, RIS spoke with three leading retailers to find out what human resource methodologies they are using to address this issue and how technology itself is playing in their employee retention strategies.

Value Employees 24/7

"We keep good IT people by demonstrating our genuine interest in helping them grow within our organization, and providing the right opportunities for that growth corridor," asserts Scott Floeck, senior vice president of North American retail and corporate systems for Framingham, Massachusetts-based office supply retailer Staples.

The Staples initiatives include methods for understanding and addressing employees' concerns, improving communications, helping associates balance their work and personal lives, enabling them to stay current with IT skills and stressing the value of moving horizontally as well as vertically within the organization. For example, the company has employed a tool from Reflexis Systems of Norwood, Massachusetts, to survey employees about their specific professional concerns.

The results of the Reflexis survey showed that clarity and consistency of communications was key to the Staples IT staff. In response, rather than having key information trickle down through management ranks, as it does in most large corporations, Staples' CIO Paul Gaffney (RIS cover story, May 2003) communicates directly with the IT staff in monthly "huddles" to assure the company's IT message is clear and consistent.

Clear Communication

Corporate-wide, project-focused collaboration between employees at Staples has progressed with technology from Plumtree Software of San Francisco. Staples built a tool on Plumtree technology called "Staples at Work," which streamlines corporate-wide communications. Within "Staples at Work" an instant messaging function for the IT staff further enhances communications among team members.

"Overall, our goal is to make communications within the IT department as quick and easy as possible. In keeping with Staples' tagline — 'That Was Easy' — the systems and programs within our corporate culture are designed to make our associates' jobs easier, too," claims Floeck.

He continues, "Our people also feel more valued when we take the time to plainly communicate where the IT department is going from a technical perspective," which is towards a J2EE Web services technology and structure, says Floeck. Staples provides its IT team with strategies clearly defined and conveyed, and then supported with training initiatives that retool team members in those technologies.

Staples embarked on a mission this year to help its IT people understand exactly how their project deliverables directly relate to overall company results, such as earnings per share, return on net assets and customer service. Floeck states this helps employees feel more strongly linked to the corporation as a whole. Today, Staples does this work through quarterly PowerPoint reporting, while implementation is underway of an integrated Web-based resource, project and service management application from PlanView of Austin, Texas. The PlanView technology will map more succinctly all of the IT team's initiatives to company objectives and allow for simple reporting.

Horizontal Advancement

In tough economic times when there are fewer IT openings on the market, low turnover restricts the ability to move within an organization. For employees however, career planning can't be sidelined. To prevent a loss of focus on career planning during this period of economic uncertainty, Staples encourages associates to pursue growth through horizontal movement.

"The way to advance a career is not always up, but sometimes across an organization," maintains Floeck. To support development in this direction, Staples has assured that every job has a clear description and then makes job openings more visible by posting them — using a tool from Brass Ring of Waltham, Massachusetts — on the "Staples at Work" portal. Staples then pushes this information to associates through e-mail alerts.

The company is also in the process of implementing a competency model though an online tool provided by Personnel Decisions Inc. of Minneapolis. In addition, Staples is building a career framework, which will help associates better understand the different types of job families functioning at Staples. "By exposing associates to different parts of our business, they are not in a silo but strategically repositioned for the opportunities that will open when growth happens," explains Floeck.

Moving Skills Forward

When the economy rebounds, Staples associates who have stayed abreast of new technologies from an educational perspective will be more valuable to the company and to the market in general, and "can take advantage of the best IT opportunities as these jobs begin to open," according to Staples' vice president of North American delivery information systems David Kistler.

To this end, Staples maintains a comprehensive training program to help its IT associates move their skills forward. One element is a leadership program held in conjunction with Boston College designed to transform selected IT team members from good managers to great leaders. Another is a powerful Internet-based resource tool called Books24x7, which provides instant access to thousands of reference books to make education more convenient for IT personnel. With just a few keystrokes from their office or home PCs, rather than a time-consuming trip to a big box bookstore on personal time, associates can use this tool to search and dissect a broad range of technical and business information. Books24x7 is technology from Nashua, New Hampshire-based e-learning courseware provider SkillSoft.

"Not everyone has time to spend in a bookstore," claims Kistler. "Books24x7 helps my team keep its skills up with on-demand reference information at the desktop, giving all my managers and technical people instant access to thousands of reference selections on technical issues, management techniques, and quality and business information." Staples' IT team can search for XML, for example, and get a list of books with XML as the primary topic, which can be reviewed by section or bookmarker, and forwarded to other team members. Preferred reading lists can be established, and e-mail alerts are received when additional books are published on the site.

State-of-the-Art Balance

"The investment in online reference materials is part of Staples' overall commitment to making associates feel valued in good economic times and bad," according to Kistler. "Tools like this help us provide IT associates with a balance between their personal and work lives, a big challenge for companies these days. This commitment makes us more desirable as an employer."

Other efforts underway that help IT employees balance personal and work time include remote laptops configured for Staples access and floater cell phones that take text messages, including error messages automatically generated by IT applications, to give the on-call staff more flexibility in their physical location.

At Ace Hardware, Steve Lesniak, director of employment and compensation, underscores this concept: "Providing online services that save time for employees and allow them to better balance their personal time and work life definitely gives companies a competitive advantage in the marketplace."

Lesniak refers to his Oak Park, Illinois company's roll-out this month of an Internet-based employee self-serve module from Ceridian Corporation of Minneapolis, which allows associates to view and update HR/payroll information directly (among other features) at their convenience from the home or office.

He says the IT staff at Ace Hardware has come to expect from management not only the high level, state-of-the-art technical tools to which they have access, but also the convenience that the portals of self-service bring; perhaps more so than employees in organizations that don't deal with technology day to day.

"It's meaningful to our associates when they realize we are willing to make an investment in them by keeping state-of-the-art in the way we transact our people business," notes Lesniak. "Our brand as a corporation is to be 'the most helpful hardware company on the planet.' We want to live that brand within the HR function with tools that free our people from pushing papers by allowing online transactions around the clock. It's the quality of work life we provide that is important to retention," contends Lesniak. "It differentiates us from companies that don't make this investment, and keeps us on parity with the best-of-class employers that do."

"Will HR technology alone retain IT employees? No, but it is one piece of our approach to conducting our people business that has an important impact on how employees perceive this corporation," he continues. "Knowing Ace has made the commitment and investment in systems that are respectful of people's time and allows them to find balance between work and home life is very meaningful to our associates. I truly believe the return will be there in terms of employee perception."

Maintain Top IT Shop

John Simley, spokesperson for Home Depot of Atlanta, reports that while there are myriad factors that help retailers attract and retain good IT talent, the key for Home Depot is its focus on being a state-of-the-art IT shop: "IT professionals don't want to deal with legacy systems. It's our commitment to driving and building the newest technical applications that creates job satisfaction. Our IT team members feel as if they are developing the science."

"Access to state-of-the-art systems is a continuum, an evolution," according to Simley. "Our business changes rapidly and without warning, and we have to be prepared with systems that adapt not just to the current environment but future conditions."

Simley notes that even in this slower economy Home Depot is growing quickly, adding a new store "every 43 hours." He believes that since its IT systems keep getting more expansive and complex as growth is accommodated, a change in the job market likely will not impact the retention of even its most valuable IT members.

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