Building Intrinsic Motivation Using Personal Learning Plans for High Technology Workers

by | April 22, 2011

This is a paper I wrote for a course I took as part of my Masters of Science program at Syracuse University.  I believe that the only way we can succeed as leaders is to empower and motivate the people we work with.  This paper describes a motivation process that I use with my team … I look forward to your comments and feedback.


This paper explores an approach to build intrinsic motivation in High Technology Workers which motivates them to work on their personal learning plans to earn rewards in their personal, educational and career objectives in a work environment governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Topics covered are (a) Definition of Key Terms, (b), Background, (c) An Approach for Motivating Unionized Employees, (d) Review of Supporting Motivational Theories and (e) Conclusions.  After reading this paper, the reader should have a clear understanding of the key terms, background, discussion of motivational theories and an approach to develop intrinsic motivation for employees to work towards rewards in their personal, educational and career objectives.


Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA): A written contract between an employer and a labor union, for a definitive period of time, spelling out conditions of employment, wages, hours of work, rights of employees and the union, and procedures to be followed in settling disputes.

Personal Learning Plan (PLP): A structured and collaborative process between an employee and their manager with goal of creating a plan for the employee’s personal, educational and career development.

SMART Objectives: A mnemonic used in performance management to describe the goals and targets set for employees.  SMART stands for :  Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound.

Total Compensation: A Human Resources term used to describe the complete compensation an employer provides to employee including salary, benefits, pension, health care and government benefits.


I lead a team of 22 unionized, Systems Analysts in the Information Technology Services department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) (  BCIT is a provincially chartered and publically funded higher education institution.  My team has responsibility for all the applications delivered centrally to our community.  My team members’ total compensation is governed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the BCIT Faculty and Staff Association (FSA) ( and BCIT.   The CBA (BCIT FSA, 2007) prescribes the specifics of the employee compensation items:

  • Holidays, Vacations and Leaves
  • Professional Development
  • Placement and Advancement
  • Salary, Hourly Rates and Allowances
  • Insurance/Benefit Plans
  • Administrative Allowances

The CBA does not have any provisions for bonuses or rewards for FSA union members, although BCIT does run an annual Employee Excellence recognition program.  The CBA specifies three job descriptions – Junior Systems Analyst (JSA), Intermediate Systems Analyst (ISA) and Senior Systems Analyst (SSA); each with nine pay steps.  The job descriptions are generic and specific duties are defined within work teams.  Staff members are automatically granted the next salary pay step annually until they reach the top, ninth step.  Staff members can follow a process to apply for reclassification from JSA to ISA and ISA to SSA.  Finally, the CBA describes a Performance Management process but the outcomes of the performance review can not be used for discipline or reward purposes.

This constrained environment is a significant challenge for managers.  It is particularly difficult to find ways to motivate our staff members with rewards.  Managers have some discretion in assigning work to team members and allowing flexible work hours but the unionized culture forces a manager to work to the lowest common denominator when considering reward opportunities.  Should a manager appear to break the rules in the CBA, there is a grievance process that a staff member can engage to address their issues.  The final background factor to be considered is that nature of the work environment of high technology workers.  High technology workers are constantly faced with changes in their profession and there are significant challenges for them to stay current while also doing their daily work.

An Approach for Motivating Unionized Employees

An approach I have implemented to motivate my team is the Personal Learning Plan (PLP). Swinton recommends “Although you may have little scope to change pay policies and make substantial changes to what people earn, there is plenty you can do. Making sure you hold regular one to one meetings to discuss goals and personal development is a valuable investment in time. Set goals for your team and help them to create their own personal development plan.” (Swinton, 2006)  I meet regularly with my team members to collaboratively build a personal learning plan.  This approach has been successful in the workplace and motivates staff members to advance their personal, educational and career objectives.   Developing PLPs with your staff provides multiple motivational and rewarding impacts:

·         Reinforces the shared responsibility of the employer/manager and the employee to career development benefiting the employee and the company

·         Allows employees at lower positions to build skills and competencies so they can apply to reclassify to higher level positions

·         Allows employees to build skills and competencies so they can apply for different jobs and roles in the organization

·         Keeps job skills current in a rapidly changing high technology work environment

Personal Learning Plans are “living” documents that require an investment of time by the employee and manager to build plans that are realistic and achievable.  A key to this requirement in the process is ensuring the individual learning items to “SMART objectives”.  A sample personal learning plan can be found in Appendix A.  Personal Learning Plans are effective intrinsic motivation tools that help employees achieve extrinsic rewards.  Three reward scenarios are:  (1) Constructing a plan to allow employees to reclassify to higher level positions, (2) Constructing a plan to allow employees to apply for different jobs and (3) Constructing a plan to enable employees to remain current in their field reducing stress from technology change.

Review of Supporting of Motivational Theories

I found several motivational theories that support the approach of Personal Learning Plans including Adams’ Equity Theory, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory, Fear of Failure and Personal Causation.

In the background section, I explained the collective bargaining agreement article allowing employees at lower levels to apply for a reclassification of their position to a higher job description.  John Stacey Adams developed an Equity Theory that fits this scenario particularly well.  Aside from the extrinsic motivation of receiving more pay, employees compare their workload and responsibilities to those of their peers.  Essentially, the employee compares their effort to reward ratio with that of their peers and colleagues. If the person believes they are spending more effort and receiving less reward, they will be de-motivated.  One of the more common themes in my PLP meetings revolves around a discussion about how the employee perceives their work effort in comparison to a colleague who is in a higher position (and receiving higher pay).   This sentiment is very common in a unionized environment that is constrained in providing extrinsic rewards for good work in your current job.

Adams writes about “referent others” to describe the people and reference points we use to compare our situation to.  “Crucially this means that Equity does not depend on our input-to-output ratio alone – it depends on our comparison between our ratio and the ratio of others.” (Chapman, 2010)  This is a key concept for Adams’ Equity Theory (see Appendix B) in that perception of equity plays a key role in the motivation for employee’s inputs to a work process.  Junior and Intermediate Systems Analysts wanting to apply for reclassification are motivated to develop their skills and experience in order to be successful in reclassification process.  As the manager, I can reward this desire by providing funding support for training and professional development as well as coaching.  I can also provide opportunities for the employee to lead parts of key projects and to project manage smaller projects.  Having a “SMART” objectives designed personal learning plan allows me to provide rewards to employees who are motivated to develop their career to gain extrinsic rewards.  Six of my staff have taken this approach and successfully reclassified to higher level positions in our department.

I use Personal Learning Plans as motivational tools to guide the people I mentor.  An intermediate systems analyst who worked on the Service Desk (Help Desk) team approached me to get advice on how to put herself in a position to apply for a role as a business analyst.  Together, we developed a PLP that focused on developing new skills and opportunities for her to work on gathering requirements in projects.  The power of the plan is the written commitment by the manager and the employee to act on the plan.  Using Vroom’s Expectancy Theory (see Appendix C), we can see how the Valence of the Outcome (to move to a new role) times the Expectancy (creating a PLP) leads to a motivational force to achieve. (Vroom, 1964)  The PLP becomes a tangible piece of evidence that the person uses to gain the reward of being able to apply for a new role.   Brown uses Vroom’s Expectancy Theory to discuss Reward Management.  Some of her key points directly support the strength of using personal learning plans to motivate the employee to gain the rewards “they” desire. (Brown, 2010)

High technology workers are under constant pressure to stay current in their rapidly changing field.  Once a Systems Analyst reaches the top step of the senior level (SSA), money and status are no longer motivating factors. These staff members tend to be older and articulate concerns about how quickly things change around them.  Legitimate concerns revolve around a Fear of Failure in the form of defensive pessimism.  Younger staff members in the organization come to the workplace with new skills that the older staff have not received training for.  Personal Learning plans for senior staff members address these demotivating forces by committing the manager and the employee to a learning plan that introduces new skills at a pace that the employee can handle.  Deci supports this approach by referencing De Charms’ theory of Personal Causation and the concept of being an “Origin”. (Deci, 1995)


Implementing Personal Learning Plans with unionized employees provides a manager the opportunity to provide rewards that benefit the employee and the organization.  Developing PLPs with your staff provides multiple motivational and rewarding impacts:

·         Reinforces the shared responsibility of the manager and the employee

·         Allows employees at lower positions to build higher level skills and competencies

·         Allows employees to change jobs by building skills and competencies

·         Keeps job skills current with a rapidly changing high tech work environment

Personal Learning Plans are “living” documents that require an investment of time by the employee and manager to build plans that are realistic and achievable.  If managers choose to invest the time and effort, they tangibly enhance the personal, educational and career rewards of their employees.


BCIT FSA, B. (2007, July 1). Collective Agreement 2007-2010. Retrieved Nov 26, 2010, from BCIT Faculty and Staff Association:

Brown, C. (2010, Feb 26). Reward Management and Motivational Theory. Retrieved Nov 20, 2010, from

Chapman, A. (2010, Feb 1). Adams’ Equity Theory. Retrieved Nov 20, 2010, from

Deci, E. L. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self Motivation. Penguin Books.

Swinton, L. (2006, Oct 12). Adams Equity Motivation Theory; Put Workplace Psychology Into Action and Increase Motivation. Retrieved Nov 25, 2010, from Management for the Rest of Us:

Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and Motivation. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

6 thoughts on “Building Intrinsic Motivation Using Personal Learning Plans for High Technology Workers

  1. Pingback: Thinking about Your Career Path in IT

  2. Tanja Bloch

    Hello, I really like your article, is there any way I could have your attachments? Thank you in advance

  3. Marianne

    Very helpful article. Would it be possible to have a copy of the attachments? It would be much appreciated.

    1. Leo de Sousa Post author

      Marianne, thanks for reading my post. I will email you the template for the Personal Learning Plan. Thanks! Leo


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