If you thought passion was not an appropriate target for IT investment, think again.

This investment can be increasingly central to your firm’s ability to stimulate and sustain passion throughout the workforce.              

The term “passion,” as applied to the workplace, has become an overused and often misunderstood term. Many mistake employee satisfaction or engagement for passion, while others would argue that passion – unpredictable and uncontrollable – is best left out of the workplace altogether. Worker passion, as we conceive of it, stems from a deep, sustained commitment to learn faster and drive performance to ever-higher levels in order to make an increasing contribution to a specific domain of activity. This passion manifests in an appetite for new challenges and a strong desire to work with and learn from others to solve these challenges faster. We refer to these two qualities of the passionate as their ”questing” and “connecting” dispositions.  

According to our research, today’s organizations have largely failed to stimulate passion among their workers; despite much effort and money devoted to talent development and retention, today’s passion profile remains bleak. Deloitte’s 2011 Shift Index report revealed that only one in five workers can be classified as “passionate,” based on their proclivity to quest and connect. For large firms, the news is even worse. Our research shows that passion levels among workers are inversely related to the size of the enterprise – the larger the firm, the lower the levels of passion.

In the past, passion (frequently referred to as employee satisfaction) was considered an issue of organizational culture and was  the responsibility of the CEO and HR. In recent years, a range of technologies have emerged  that can help foster a deeper sense of connection and purpose in employees, ignite latent worker passion and bring together disparate parts of the organization. But these new tools also necessitate a new way of thinking, and the offices of the CIO and CTO can play a large role in shaping a vision of the firm as a place where passionate individuals want to connect with and learn from one another. These offices also have a significant responsibility to choose and deploy the IT that will help their firms realize this vision. Simply put, IT can no longer just be about numbers and algorithms; it has an opportunity to be a significant catalyst for passion and a tool for encouraging questing and connecting dispositions to bloom.

Encourage Questing through Personal Dashboards and Game Design

The current paradigm of year-end performance reviews and static feedback has been around for decades, but it does little to empower people to seek out challenges or improve performance. Not only does too much time elapse for feedback to be useful, employees are often rewarded for predictable, quantifiable results, rather than tackling new challenges and potentially failing. We recently heard a telling anecdote from a friend leading a new business unit at an innovative tech company. When he made the executive decision to forgo ineffective “one-on-ones” with his team, HR immediately tried to mandate that they be reinstated. Even though his team was supposed to be scrappy and cutting-edge, there was still a visceral response against developing talent in different ways. This attitude can stifle passion and creates incentives for individuals to work strictly within their domain of expertise.

New technologies make it possible to create solid constructs while maintaining the flexibility to inspire workers to seek  new challenges. The application of game design mechanics, or gamification, has proven a powerful motivator in the social arena, and these principles can have large implications for the enterprise as well. Though gamification is gaining traction in startups and more tech-savvy firms, such tools are still largely dismissed by the broader business community.

We have been researching massively multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft, for years and have found that both the passion levels and learning trajectories of devoted players in these MMOG environments are staggering. When new players sign up for WoW, they enter into the game as individuals. However, it is extremely common, as players advance, for them to form close-knit guilds in order to harness distributed knowledge and tackle even more challenging levels together. In the perennial pursuit of that next level, guilds can become hotbeds of innovation and creative problem solving. In fact, high-performing guilds are so effective that they can often solve brand new levels of the game, designed to take months to complete, in just a few hours. 

One of the key reasons why guilds foster such rapid cycles of development is that members receive individual and group-level performance data continuously via personalized performance dashboards. Rather than learning about mistakes or triumphs only after the mission ends, WoW devotees see their performance develop in real time, which creates opportunities for constant learning and improvement. Additionally, watching one’s own performance improvement provides a satisfying incentive to strive for that next level or challenge.

These tools can be just as powerful for fostering a deep sense of purpose in real world working environments. Consider the marked improvement possible if employees could track their progress through workplace “challenges,” learning as they went based on feedback provided by performance dashboards that they designed themselves, instead of waiting for designated performance reviews. Imagine if employees were rewarded in real time for taking on something new or especially difficult, even if they failed.

Not only are the potential benefits of these tools significant, the barriers to implementation are diminishing rapidly. In the past several years, a host of firms have entered the space of dynamic performance management software. As personal dashboards become more sophisticated, they will be able to track performance with a greater degree of granularity based on individual-level data. The ease and immediacy of these personal dashboards make them even more attractive when compared with the process of writing lengthy feedback from memory at set review periods.

By deploying technologies that encourage challenge-seeking and collaboration, rather than perpetuating feedback cycles that reward predictability, CIOs and CTOs can foster a culture of life-long learning, drive performance improvement and stoke passion. As the pace of change continues to increase, so does the need for rapid institutional learning. IT departments can play a pivotal role in defining this new direction for companies and employees.

Empower Connecting with Social Software

Passionate, high-performing employees demonstrate a strong desire to connect with others who are relevant to their work and their continuing efforts to seek out and overcome performance challenges. In order to foster a collaborative environment in your workforce, it is important that appropriate infrastructures make these connections as frictionless as possible. Social software platforms can be powerful conduits to catalyze and amplify the knowledge flowing across the enterprise – if they are deployed correctly.

For a top Wall Street law firm, the organization-wide adoption of social tools began not with a top-down mandate, but with a demonstrated need at the junior level. It began when young associates, deeply familiar with social media, started using Twitter to share knowledge and help each other on their cases. For example, associates would frequently tweet when they couldn’t remember the name of a particular case and, usually within minutes, they would be reminded of the answer by a colleague. The peer networks had a noticeable impact on the productivity of associates, so much so that it prompted investigation from partners when the hours charged by associates declined, even though the quality of their work improved.

The CTO of this law firm saw a valuable opportunity for these tools to connect disparate parts of the organization and improve knowledge sharing internally. To this end, he brought together (and served as intermediary between) the young associates and senior partners to develop an appropriate social media strategy. The connections made via these social software tools can do much more than improve efficiency; they can help reinforce an employee’s sense of belonging at the firm and also improve performance on specific projects.

Gaining the trust of employees is crucial to the successful deployment of social software. As with this law firm, there are many other organizations where the CIO or CTO can serve as a valuable intermediary between digital natives, who are extremely comfortable with social tools, and those unfamiliar with or hesitant to utilize social software. In turn, these tools can help forge meaningful bonds across the company and between levels, leading to a more passionate, informed and connected workforce.

IT Tools Create Passion that Pays Off

Today’s new technologies can be powerful catalysts to ignite passion and inspire questing and connecting. However, organizations cannot be wedded to the technologies themselves; ultimately the success of an implementation begins from a demonstrated need within the organization and a clear vision of what a future state could be.

As IT executives, it is important to first diagnose a specific need that these tools can help address and identify where and why your passion deficits exist. Are incentive structures discouraging employees from tackling challenges beyond their current level? Are employees less inclined to connect with and learn from others because of the laborious search process? These questions are important to identify where efforts should be focused.

Passion levels do not have to be considered a fixed quantity, and IT should not consider the passion problem to be merely an issue of office culture or staffing, outside their department’s scope. There’s an entirely new level of performance improvement that IT executives can help catalyze if the mindset is mended. By tracking the performance improvement that results from unleashing higher levels of passion, IT executives can demonstrate that investments in new generations of IT have a far greater payoff than previously imagined.

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Copyright (c) 2013 Deloitte. All rights reserved. Published with permission.