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Retention Hooks For Keeping Knowledge Workers
By Marcia Zidle   Printer Friendly Version

The retention of highly skilled knowledge workers is one of the major challenges today for all managers and supervisors. Knowledge workers are, for example, the developers and caretakers of the computer and tele-communication networks that keep your business running. They are also the producers of the dazzling computer graphics presentations that help your sales force land new customers. And they are even the bank customer account reps who look into data bases to decide whether to grant a loan request or to explain investment options such as money market, stock, and bond funds.

According to Peter Drucker, knowledge workers are those whose work primarily requires the use of "mental power rather than muscle power." Knowledge work involves analyzing information and applying specialized expertise to solve problems, to generate ideas, or to create new products and services. Knowledge workers are therefore extremely valuable because they keep the factories churning, the customers satisfied, the new products coming out the door---they are the backbone of your company. So how do you keep these highly skilled and valuable workers from jumping ship---from going to a competitor?

You can respond to the retention challenge by first understanding the Tootsie Roll Pop Strategy. Inside a Tootsie Roll Pop is the chocolate core. This core is the traditional way of attracting and retaining workers, that is, through wages and benefits. Yes, a competitive compensation package is a factor, to a point But, in a job market in which candidates can be picky, they are looking for more than money. Pay and benefits will get people to show up for work, but they will not generate the attitudinal commitment to be a high performer and to remain with the company.

However, in a Tootsie Roll Pop, there is also the outer layer--the different flavors--red, green, orange, etc. These different flavors are the variety of programs and benefits that a company provides for its employees. Today's professional worker desires family-friendly programs, flexible work arrangements, and, particularly, career development opportunities. They stay committed to a particular company as long as the work environment allows them to continually learn, to grow intellectually, and to work on challenging and interesting projects.

Managers and supervisors play a definite role in the development of a work environment that promotes the continuous improvement and professional development of their knowledge workers. Here are some retention hooks that are within the scope of your managerial responsibilities:

Support training and development. What highly skilled workers realize that in a fast changing world, those who snooze will soon lose their marketable skills. The latest technology, or software package, or self-development program not only can lure knowledge workers, but can also induce them to stay on board. A manager, who encourages his people to upgrade their skills, acquire new or updated knowledge, enrich their current jobs and pursue their individualized career goals, will more likely get and keep highly-skilled and quality people.

Provide special assignments. Knowledge workers will more likely remain if they know they are learning new things, gaining exposure to 'hot areas', and increasing their visibility inside the company. Some examples of short-term developmental projects include leading a task force on a pressing business problem, handling negotiations with a customer, installing a new system, integrating systems across units, supervising product or equipment purchase, and presenting a proposal report to top management.

Rotate jobs and responsibilities. The movement of workers to different tasks at specified intervals enables them to develop and practice new skills and determine areas in which they can best use their talents. Also, a staff that is prepared to function in a variety of capacities and to perform a variety of duties will bring breadth and depth to your team or department As a side benefit, rotation of people to different areas can result in better communication and work relations.

Show interest. Ask your valued workers how they are doing, what's going well and what's not. The more you know about your people, the better job you can do matching them with opportunities and the more satisfied and productive they will be. It's a win-win situation for all. Finally don't wait for yearly performance review time to recognize good work. Do it on a regular basis. As with most people who take pride in their work, knowledge workers value recognition, nearly as much as good pay.

One very savvy manager said to me, "What's important to these people (knowledge workers) is a great work environment, great tools, the opportunity to learn surrounded by winners, knowing that they're fairly compensated, and recognition for their work. You can't just throw money at these folks. You have to make sure they have a chance to grow."

The organization that is able to recruit, motivate, and retain the best workers is going to have a huge strategic advantage. Therefore, companies that offer comprehensive training with planned, on-the job experience, complemented by enlightened supervision and opportunities for ongoing professional development, will be more successful in retaining their valued and highly skilled people. In other words, give knowledge workers room to grow---or someone else will.

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