3 Ways to Motivate IT Knowledge Workers in Universities

Under increasing pressure, it's even more important for university IT leaders to do what works best for their students.

by / October 29, 2015 0
Daniel H. Pink demonstrates his point in a keynote at EDUCAUSE on October 28, 2015. Tanya Roscorla

INDIANAPOLIS — Run more like a business and raise student outcomes — that's the charge industry leaders and policymakers have given to universities.

But while raising student graduation and persistence rates are good things, university leaders can't increase them with business practices that don't work — just as businesses dangling rewards in front of their employees doesn't always work. In fact, they only work for short, mechanical tasks, said Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, during a keynote at EDUCAUSE on Wednesday, Oct. 28, in Indianapolis.

Guess what? Employees in university IT departments mostly engage in complex, long-term cognitive tasks where goals aren't always clear, the way to reach those goals is not obvious and creativity is required. So rewards don't usually work for them, either.

What can universities use to motivate their IT employees, and how they can better use the resources they have? Give them autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work. 

1. Autonomy

Autonomy allows IT workers to set their own schedule, choose what their daily schedule of tasks looks like, have some choice in whom they work with and control how they accomplish their tasks.

"The way that human beings engage is through self direction," Pink said. "You don't engage by being managed or controlled."

By giving employees a "genius hour" to work on something they're interested in, universities can see some major breakthroughs in terms of research discoveries, business processes and motivation. To figure out how much autonomy you or your team has, check out this quick autonomy audit.

In contrast, many leaders micromanage their employees, and that doesn't work.

"The provocative takeaway for me is that management's a technique and it's an invention, and it's just not effective," said Rory O'Neill, executive director of applications services at the University of Alaska. His team has the freedom to do what they need to do, and that's resulted in higher-quality work and less stress.

2. Mastery

Mastery allows employees to feel like they're making progress on something each day, and in order to do that, they need rich, consistent, informal feedback. They don't need stiff and awkward annual performance reviews. The younger generation of employees, millennials, receives instant feedback when they run Web searches, send text messages and play video games. But the organizations they work for are feedback deserts, Pink said.

Without consistent feedback, employees may fail too long and waste time working on projects ineffectively, said Jonathan Razo, information security officer at Stanford University.

"We want to know how we're doing, and waiting for those annual reviews might be too late," Razo said.

Pink suggested two ways to help employees work toward mastery: Weekly one-on-one meetings with a twist and progress rituals. By doing weekly one-on-ones with a twist, managers can check in to see what their employees are working on and what they need for the first three weeks of a month. On the fourth week, they can go deeper by asking one question like what stumbling blocks they can help remove, what the employees love or loathe about their job, or what their long-term career goals are. 

IT workers or teams can also establish progress rituals, as Pink calls them, to help them see their progress on a daily basis. A tool called iDoneThis sends a daily email asking what users have done that day. IT workers can just hit "reply" to list the important things they did. Then the tool compiles all the "dones" on a calendar so they can see their progress.

3. Purpose

Purpose allows IT workers to understand why their work matters. Purpose with a capital "P" helps them understand the larger purpose of their work so they can feel like they're making a difference. Purpose with a lowercase "p" helps them know that they're making a contribution to the larger purpose on a daily basis. And it's the cheapest, most cost-effective motivator that universities can use, Pink said.

By using these three motivators well, university IT leaders can help keep their employees from jumping ship to another university or the private sector. And that ultimately means they'll continue to advance the research and education missions of universities, which includes supporting and graduating students who are ready for the challenges they'll face in the world of work. 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.