If you’ve ever seriously considered dropping out from the rough and tumble of the IT world, you might have looked at buying an established small business such as a pub, a shop or a post office.
In which case you may have discovered a fascinating new concept, not often recognised within the IT community – something called “goodwill".
And the owners of such small businesses seem to put a substantial price tag on their goodwill, which must mean that it does have real value – because their business buyers invariably pay the asking price.
Although you might think that goodwill is more of a state of mind than a genuinely tangible asset, it is, undoubtedly, a major element of many successful businesses. Quite simply, the “goodwill” is what makes the business tick and gives the business its value.
In fact, some small businesses appear to consist almost entirely of goodwill, for example a window cleaning service, or milk delivery round might amount to nothing more than a valuable list of long-standing, regular customers. So, without the well-established goodwill of its customers, such a business may have little or no value to its owner.
You may be wondering how this principle applies to bigger businesses that are not quite so susceptible to the whims of a small number of individual customers.
You won't see it on a corporate balance sheet
Well, the truth is that it does – but we don’t usually put a value on goodwill. In larger businesses, this vital commercial ingredient tends simply to get subsumed within “sales” or “turnover” figures. Very few substantial companies put a value on their “goodwill” , so you probably won’t see it on a corporate balance sheet.
And you will definitely never see “goodwill” appearing on an IT budget plan, either. Which is a pity, because I haven’t yet found an IT department that doesn’t rely on goodwill for its smooth operation - the goodwill of the staff to get the job done, even when events or circumstances are conspiring against them.
The problem is that much of this reliance on goodwill is not always apparent beyond the department. It’s a simple fact of life that, for most of the time, our business colleagues in other areas don’t get remotely interested in IT until something goes wrong, then every man and his dog seems to jump up and down, baying for resolution and retribution.
And yet I know too well that very many IT staff work long and hard, often far beyond their contractual obligations, to get things running when systems fall over during anti-social hours.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that my staff have worked through the wee small hours of the morning, or slogged through yet another weekend double-shift – just so that everything is hunky-dory in time for the start of business. There is no glory in such dedication because the hard work is rarely apparent beyond those directly involved.
Our working lives are made easier
That’s why it’s so important for us to recognise and maintain the goodwill of our staff. Without their goodwill, our professional lives would be so much more difficult.
So, given that insight, how should we promote and preserve this precious asset?
How can we foster a spirit of goodwill, among staff who may well be deeply dispirited and disappointed by the poor investment climate for technology, or concerned for their job security?
How can we motivate our people to go that extra mile for our benefit?
Well, there are a number of ways that I have found useful in the past…
First is direct personal recognition of a job well done – sincere and timely thanks to all concerned should be freely and publicly expressed. Everybody likes to be appreciated and we should not shrink from the opportunity to show our thanks. For maximum effect, this needs to be spontaneous and immediate – not weeks later when everyone has begun to forget about the situation.
Second, I always include examples of goodwill in my monthly management reports. A “mention in dispatches” lets our customers know exactly how hard we work to keep the wheels oiled, even when they don’t see the effort. Acknowledgement in the management reports also places the credit where it is due – to the individuals concerned.
Of course, this is all very nice and caring. But as everybody knows in Yorkshire, you can’t bank praise and kudos. Fine words don’t pay the bills, so why don’t we just reward goodwill with higher pay and instant cash bonuses?
I admit that such an approach may be appealing to many people but I believe direct financial reward for goodwill is not necessarily the best long-term strategy for promoting goodwill. Indeed, it may not even be an option in the present financial climate.
If we simply put a price on goodwill, it loses integrity by becoming part of the routine. In other words, once we embark on such a policy, we set expectations for future occasions and it will lead to conflicts between what genuinely constitutes dedication beyond the bounds of duty and what is part of the job.
A scaleable system of 'red letter days'
Instead of a straightforward bonus, or ex-gratia payment, my own preference for tangible reward is to have a flexible, scaleable, system of special non-financial awards.
In one of my previous companies, these were called “red letter days” where managers could reward staff by presenting them with a special treat, of their own choosing from a catalogue. There were a variety of options, ranging from dinner at local restaurants, through to “themed” days out, such as motor-racing days, or spa pampering days.
I thoroughly recommend such a policy because it creates an opportunity that not only to rewards the member of staff but also lets them share their reward – very important if their dedication and goodwill to their work has impinged on their family or social life.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the spirit of goodwill always relies on mutual respect and fairness.
We need to take a balanced management approach to every individual and to make sure that the principle of “give and take” is not always demonstrated by the employee giving and the management taking…
Do you agree? Are IT staff taken for granted?
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]