The study is called The Dual Ladder: Motivational Solution or Managerial Delusion?. It was authored by Thomas J. Allen and Ralph Katz, both associated with MIT's Sloan School of Management, and was originally published in R&D Management. I wish I could link to an electronic copy on the web, but I can't. A Google search results in many citations, but no copy of the article. *
The authors begin their article with a frank assessment of the dual ladder's effectiveness:
The problems underlying the dual ladder concept are several ... [One problem is] organizations tend, over time, to diverge from the initial design and intent of the system. For the first few years, the criteria for promotion to the technical ladder may well be followed rigorously, but they gradually become corrupted. The technical ladder often becomes a reward for organizational loyalty rather than technical contribution.
If the dual ladder is often implemented poorly, there must be a reason companies keep the system. Perhaps, if nothing else, it is an effective way to motivate technical talent. To test this theory, Allen and Katz surveyed managers and engineers in "nine major U.S. organizations". They asked:
To what extent would you like your career to be:The 2157 managers and engineers surveyed were asked to rate each of the above choices on a scale of 1 to 7. The results were 32.6% preferred "b", the management ladder, 21.6% preferred "a", the technical ladder, and 45.8% preferred "c" the opportunity to engage in challenging projects. In other words, twice as many engineers were motivated by challenging projects than by promotion up the technical ladder. Furthermore, this tendency toward a preference for challenging projects, irrespective of promotion, increased with age.
- a progression up the technical professional ladder to a higher-level position?
- a progression up the managerial ladder to a higher level position?
- the opportunity to engage in those challenging and exciting research activities and projects with which you are most interested, irrespective of promotion?
Although Allen and Katz did not study the software industry specifically, their conclusions are consistent with those of many seasoned software developers. That is: There is an inherent reward in doing interesting work. Even when there is a technical ladder available, many developers find more satisfaction in working on challenging projects than in climbing the ladder. The technical ladder is often the predominant rewards system for developers, but as you climb the ladder, you usually design and write less software. Therefore the dual ladder system is aligned neither with most developers' goals nor with the ultimate goal of the company -- to produce and make money on software.
What do you think? Is the dual ladder a good system that is just imperfectly implemented? Is it, like democracy, the worst system "except for all those others that have been tried"? Or is there a much better system out there?
* Update: Here's a copy of the article from MIT's on-line library. This version was published in 1985.