There is a lot of talk from technology vendors about creating employee engagement. The message seems to be, “buy technology and you can create employee engagement.” It’s a nice thought but not one that is likely to pay off.

What Employee Engagement Is, What it Isn't

So what is employee engagement anyway? I’m old-school management, so I think of it as an environment that people actually want to work in. Employee engagement is really about providing meaning to the 75 percent of a person’s waking hours that they spend at work.


A sense of purpose and a modicum of respect is what most people want from work. People need money to live but want to work somewhere for other reasons entirely. Employees want to feel like they are part of something bigger than a paycheck and that their work is valued. That’s management 101.

The reasons for wanting to have engaged employees are equally well known. Pick up any of a dozen management books from the 1990’s and you will find lots of reasons for creating engagement in employees -- better customer satisfaction, lower turnover especially of people with critical skills, higher productivity, etc. What makes employee engagement difficult is that companies don’t often want to do what needs to be done to create a truly engaged (and committed) workforce.

And, again, it’s not about money. Most startups pay less than established ventures (I’ve been in enough to know) yet have employees who so love their jobs that they work like plow horses late into the night. Ask any first responder or military personnel if they do it for the money. You’ll probably insult them.

Real employee engagement, like customer engagement, comes from commitment to the individual. A commitment to having everyone become the best employee they can be, grow in their job and be proud of what they do. That means providing honest appraisals, praise and mentoring.

Learning Opportunities

Employee engagement requires -- flat out requires -- a commitment to respecting an individual enough to trust her with control over her work. Or, as General George Patton once said, “Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” It means sharing information (there is that trust thing again). And everyone must share in the fruits of their labors.

Software As an Aid

Technology can help with maintaining this environment but cannot create it.

  • Learning systems, for example, can assist in personal and professional growth -- growth that makes the company proud of the employee and that makes the employee feel appreciated.
  • Enterprise social networks help as well, keeping people in the loop and giving the information they need to succeed. They also help people to see the success that they are part of.
  • Gamification also can assist by providing little moments of motivation and small rewards that help reinforce success behaviors and eliminate destructive ones. Rajat Paharia of Bunchball put it well when he said “motivation not manipulation.”
  • New performance management systems that encourage constructive discussions and turn performance evaluations from a moment of dread into an opportunity to grow have a part in creating engaged employees, too.
  • Mobile technologies give employees on the go the tools for success and for feeling connected to others even when they are far from headquarters or from home.

Technology can help but it can’t substitute for good management. A boss who is a jerk does more harm to employee engagement than any software can compensate for. Managers who are tone deaf to the needs of employees and what motivates them can’t be helped by the best that a software vendor has to offer. Get management, policies and attitudes toward employees in order, and then go look for software to make that easier to do. Just don’t look for software to do it for you.

Image courtesy of Thinglass (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Tom's thoughts on the Social Enterprise, check out Building the Social Layer