Many companies miss the mark with employee incentives when they fail to match their motives with the right rewards. The goal of new research from the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement at Northwestern University is to develop a set of tools for managers to use to determine whether cash or noncash incentives will work better in a particular scenario.

Preliminary findings released at the Motivation Show, held September 27 to 30 in Chicago, found that noncash awards programs work better than cash in such cases as reinforcing organizational values and cultures, improving teamwork, increasing customer satisfaction, and motivating specific work behaviors. But cash reigned as a slight favorite in driving sales.

The initial findings are based on surveys distributed at the National Association of Employee Recognition annual conference, held earlier this year in Los Angeles. Eighty-one surveys were completed and collected on-site. Those results will be combined with data collected at the Motivation Show, and the full results of the study, Strategic Guidelines to Managing Cash and Non-Cash Employee Reward Programs, are expected to be released by the end of the year.

The survey also ranked the use of various motivational tools, such as special events (82.7 percent), gift certificates (74.1 percent), and training (55.6 percent). When asked about the effectiveness of these tactics, the respondents gave training programs a 3.96 (on a scale of 1 to 5) — a sign that such programs are becoming an important part of the motivational mix.

“Professional development is becoming a very key reinforcer motivator in today's environment,” said Rodger Stotz, vice president and managing consultant at Maritz Inc., St. Louis, who presented the data at the NAER fall summit, held in conjunction with the Motivation Show. He said many companies interviewing young prospects are peppered with questions about how the company will develop and train them.

How are companies measuring the success of reward programs? Most popular are employee surveys (88.9 percent), followed by employee turnover (55.6 percent), and customer surveys (50.6 percent).