Running a small business means having only a few employees. So staff appraisals matter, to make sure that members of staff are motivated and helping to drive your business forward.

While the motivation is easy for your staff in sales (commission is one prime stimulus), it can be an altogether different story for IT staff.

"Appraising IT staff should be different to appraising your other staff because they are your product," says Thomas Jeffs, chief technology officer at small business IT support provider Lucidica. "If you're not developing them, then it would be akin to Apple not developing new products."

He says that that area of IT changes more rapidly than nearly any other area, and for this reason, you need to push the knowledge and learning of your IT staff more than your other staff.

"For example, when staff go on maternity leave and return to their work, they are amazed by what's changed and what's been developed. They always have a huge amount of work to do and lots to learn in order to bring them up to speed," he says.

He says that in cases such as these staff should have access to online learning and virtual labs while they're on leave so they can keep updated with any developments.

Yearning for learning

Jeffs says that the best IT workers have a yearning to learn that isn't as essential to the makeup of non-IT staff. "You have to nurture this and develop it, otherwise you won't keep the staff," he says.

Another key point is consistency. Whether it's IT staff or not, the key to appraisals (and especially of junior staff) is to hold them regularly and consistently.

With IT personnel, skills and responsibilities have to be reviewed and updated regularly because of the rapidly changing nature of IT, where hardware, software and programming languages can become redundant within years.

"The days of IT departments treating their ownership of networks and servers like their personal fiefdom are over," says Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D Data Centres. "There has to be full transparency on their regular duties and exactly what long-term projects entail, so that their performance can be assessed accurately."

He argues that introducing such a policy - if it isn't already in place - may lead to conflict in the short term, because the IT department may feel unduly scrutinised.

However, the long-term benefits for IT professionals are likely to be an increased training budget, to keep skills and knowledge of new technology fresh, and higher likelihood of capital expenditures being signed off, since finance and operations teams will have greater understanding of the IT department's plans.

Sarah Sandbrook, human resources director at T-Systems, the corporate customer arm of Deutsche Telekom, says that appraising IT staff often does require a different approach than for other staff. But she warns it is not all one thing or another, but a blend.

"Before starting to appraise IT staff, organisations should ask themselves what they value and therefore what criteria need to be appraised. This is an important step that many IT organisations, or organisations with IT staff, miss," she says.

Different priorities

Frequently, what is of value in an IT staff member is different than for other members of staff. In other disciplines, such as finance, marketing or HR, often the way to move up the career ladder is by becoming a manager of other people. "This is not always the case for IT employees, who may enjoy, and add most value by, being expert technicians," says Sandbrook.

Being a manager requires a different mindset and skill set, so the first step in the appraisal process is to understand whether to measure performance against a technical set of values or a managerial set of values.