The IT Pyramid of Pain: how IBM’s CIO Fletcher Previn retains top talent

There are plenty of things about the nature of employment that push workers to quit. From long hours and tedious tasks to irritating colleagues or overbearing bosses, the fantasy of telling them all where to shove it can become all too irresistible. According to Fletcher Previn, CIO of IBM, workplace technology adds another layer of complexity for companies in an already competitive talent landscape.

Fletcher knows this because IBM performs continuous in-line NPS measurements, as well as a more exhaustive annual workforce effectiveness survey. Consistently, the feedback from employees is that the tools IT provides have the greatest impact on their overall happiness at work. As a CIO, Fletcher, therefore, spends a lot of time thinking about how he can improve the company’s ability to attract and retain talent; as well as being a driver of cultural change.

‘The IT Pyramid of Pain’

To help IBM’s IT team empathise with employee pain points and prioritise its focus accordingly, Fletcher developed a framework deemed the ‘IT Pyramid of Pain’ which ranks and classifies all of the ways technology can leave employees unhappy, demoralised, or paralysed at work.

“The inspiration came from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – a motivational theory in psychology that outlines a five-tier model of human needs. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. In Maslow’s Hierarchy, base needs for survival are at the bottom of the pyramid, such as food, shelter, and warmth. Those needs must be satisfied before one can achieve a higher-order need like feelings of safety, a sense of belonging, friendships, self-esteem, and, eventually, self-actualisation at the top of the hierarchy,” he told Information Age.

From the bottom of the pyramid upward, the user needs are:

  • Level 4, infrastructure: “This is the technical underpinning of our digital estate. These are the elements of the workplace that underlie everything else and impact usage when they perform poorly or have outages. For example, core networking and Wi-Fi services.”
  • Level 3, shared services: “These are conceptual spaces that are made up of related tasks and tools — for example, email and calendaring, performance management, and device management.”
  • Level 2, applications and user experiences: “These are the tools that must be used to complete tasks. For example, setting up a new laptop or mobile device or engaging with the help desk.”
  • Level 1, tasks: “Tasks that specific goals the employee needs to achieve. For example, buying an accessory, booking travel, or having a video conference.”

Fletcher’s ‘IT Pyramid of Pain’ is, of course, relevant for all organisations, not just his own. According to a Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report, 58% of survey respondents say their organisation’s technology offerings factor into a candidate’s decision to take the position. While 51% say outdated and inadequate office technology impedes their ability to retain employees with high-value skills and experience.

IT’s role in attracting and retaining talent

For many organisations, digital transformation has shifted the function of IT from being solely a service provider to a business driver. On these grounds, Fletcher encourages other IT departments to get more involved in the cultural aspects of their organisation.

He said: “The culture of any work environment is largely a function of how work gets done. That, in turn, means that the tooling and IT surrounding the employees is not trivial – it’s core to any strategy for creating a high-performance workforce.

“In order to create an environment where talented people want to work, and in particular, where gifted engineers want to work, I have to provide a productive environment for our people.

“Also important is building out a modern DevOps software development stack, and enabling employees with the best tools available. Our general approach to this is: give people the right tools and equipment, manage those assets in a modern way, and enable self-service in the environment.”

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Meeting evolving expectations

There’s no denying that the past 20 years have brought significant changes to workplace technology. The use of personal devices and increasing numbers of remote workers are just a couple of the most dramatic changes. According to Fletcher, these were significant challenges for IBM too but were something it was able to deal with.

“IBM was an early adopter of BYOD, and we have engineering cloud-based, zero-touch deployment capabilities across all major platforms, including Apple macOS and iOS, Android, Windows, and Linux.

“Gone are the days of imaging machines or complex setup instructions. IBM employees need only two steps to successfully self-provision a device from anywhere in the world: step 1, open the box; step 2: power on the device and join a Wi-Fi network; step 3 – there is no step 3. Everything that used to happen in the context of a ‘corporate image’ is now done at the time of enrollment via the cloud.”

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Focusing on design and user experience

Fletcher also encourages CIOs and IT leaders to embrace a strategy that leads with engagement and functionality in mind.

“One of the first changes I put in place as CIO was to create a direct report responsible for user experience and design. That involves much more than the visual design, and includes user research, understanding end-to-end workflows, and overall usability,” he said.

“We also modified our interpretation of Agile to include a design component on each Squad, as well as a DesignOperations, or DesOps, approach to scaling the design team. This allows the teams to understand their users, visualise the end-state deliverable, and keep the experience front and centre throughout the development and delivery process.”

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Andrew Ross

As a reporter with Information Age, Andrew Ross writes articles for technology leaders; helping them manage business critical issues both for today and in the future