Role of manager-employee relationships in retaining knowledge workers in IT industry.

AuthorPremalatha, P.

This study highlights that retention is possible not so much by HR strategies but by line strategies. The paper discusses the role of line managers in retaining knowledge workers in the Indian Information Technology (IT) Services industry using grounded theory research design. The research is based on in-depth interviews with sixteen line managers, eighteen employees, ten human resource management professionals and eight top management officials using purposeful and theoretical sampling. Results of the study highlight the experiences of employee-manager relationships in understanding the research phenomenon.


The Information Technology and Business Process Management (ITBPM) industry is one of the major contributors to India's growing economy (Agrawal, Khatri and Srinivasan, 2012; NASSCOM, 2015). The Indian IT-BPM sector which is engaged primarily in outsourced 'knowledge work', have produced a highly visible new category of global 'knowledge workers' in India (Agrawal, 1999; Amar, 2002; Upadhya, 2009).The industry largely credits its growth and development to its Knowledge workers (Agrawal, 1999; Drucker, 1999) and the knowledge that the incumbents in the industry possess (Davenport & Prusak, 2000; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1967).

When comparing the data between the year 2000-01 and 2013-14 (Table I), it is evident that the industry has remarkable contributions and employment generation for knowledge workers; 88 percent increase in IT Services and exports, 92 percent increase in BPM exports and 69 percent increase in domestic market and overall the sector accounts for 85 percent increase in number of knowledge workers employed in IT-BPM sector (NASSCOM, 2008; NASSCOM, 2015). These knowledge workers in the industry have transformed the industry and the country from just being a destination for support services to the space for high end knowledge-intensive products and services.

Though, the industry has its expansion and presence and growth within the country and globally, it witnessed difficulties, economic fluctuations and uncertainties (Kulshrestha & Sachdeva, 2011; NASSCOM, 2009; Paranjape, 2009) and human resources concerns (Agrawal, Khatri & Srinivasan, 2012; Gaan, 2011; Kummamuru, 2014; Mishra & Farooqi, 2013; NASSCOM, 2008; 2014; 2015) between late 1990s and 2015. Thus, the industry faces a challenge to attract and especially retain employees.

Rationale for the Study

Contemporary theories in management have neglected studying the role of line managers/immediate supervisors and their relationships with the employees in retaining knowledge workers. There is substantial literature pertaining to identifying and measuring factors such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job involvement, performance, intentions to quit and alternate employment opportunities leading to voluntary turnover etc (Premalatha, 2011). Contrary to the extant literature, insights from the industry interaction reveals that the role of line managers and the relationship with the employees are quoted as the main reason for voluntary turnover, engagement and retention of employees pertaining to knowledge workers in IT-BPM industry. It is misleading to rely on the existing literature to begin with for pursuing research in a sector which deals with dynamic and volatile contextual factors. Thus, as suggested by Charmaz (2006), this study did not begin with a theory or conceptual framework based on the available literature, as doing so may lead the inquirer conditioned or biased to the factors intensely quoted in the literature and may ignore the rest. Also, while analysing the methodology adopted in the existing literature, it was found that it is predominantly a positivistic paradigm. The present study focuses on the assumption that reality is subjective, multiple and socially constructed by its participants (Bryrnan, 1984; Gubaand Lincoln, 1994) and thus follows the grounded theory, a qualitative methodology. The objectives of the study are to explore the significance of manager-employee relationships in retaining knowledge workers in Indian IT Services industry and to formulate a substantive theory in the area of retaining knowledge workers.


The study is based on the grounded theory design, a qualitative inquiry approach (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Locke, 2001; Premalatha & Srivastava, 2014; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Grounded theory is a qualitative research method in which the theory emerges from the rich data collected from multiple stakeholders. It is an inductive, theory discovery methodology that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop a theoretical account covering the features of a topic while simultaneously grounding the account in empirical observations of data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

The study is based on fifty two in-depth interviews from ten organizations in IT Services industry in India which includes stakeholder groups such as line managers (sixteen), employees (eighteen) who are the primary stakeholders and human resource management professionals (ten), management officials (eight) who are the secondary stakeholders for the study. The line managers in this study refer to the managers who head or lead the projects and head a team of employees. Purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990) and theoretical sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) were used to locate the different stakeholders and data was collected through unstructured in-depth interviews. Interview data was transcribed verbatim and was analysed using open, axial and selective coding framework (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) and facilitated by the software Atlas ti version 5.0. In the open coding phase, the text (interview transcripts, field notes, theoretical memos and documents) were analyzed for important information pertaining to understanding the research phenomenon. This phase facilitated to uncover, name and develop concepts. In axial coding phase, events, observations, incidents, actions and interactions that were found to be conceptually similar in nature or related were grouped under 'categories'. Selective coding was used to identify the inter-linkages and relationships among the categories identified during the axial coding phase.


Results & Discussion

The study reflects the lived experiences of managers, employees and top level management in the industry. The following are identified as the best practices and strategies adopted by managers to bridge the relationship between employees and managers and to retain knowledge workers. The study captures the following as the evidently favored retention practices based on the field reality and not just merely on the prescriptive strategies that ought to be practiced. Grounded theory explains what is the phenomenon, not what should, could, or ought to be. The findings of the study is presented in fig. 1 and discussed under the following propositions:

Proposition 1. Empowering the role of line managers by adopting Middle-up-down management is likely to positively influence the retention of knowledge workers


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