Patrick HylandBy: Patrick Hyland, Ph.D., Director of Research and Development

“We need to conduct a pulse survey.” That’s the request we keep hearing from clients and prospects. In recent years, a number of organizations have started thinking about replacing or supplementing their annual employee survey with short quarterly, monthly, or even daily pulses.

Based on our observations, this pressure to pulse is being driven by various factors. First, organizations are seeking new ways to lift engagement levels, and some think frequent surveying can help. Second, in today’s VUCA world, leaders are hungry for regular updates about emerging challenges, employee concerns, customer complaints, and evolving trends. Third, technological advances have made it easier to select research samples, administer online surveys, and generate real-time dashboards and reports. And finally, some HR decision makers—excited about the promise of Big Data—are intrigued by the possibility of adding pulse results into their data analytics campaigns.

So is pulsing your employees a worthwhile endeavor? It certainly can be, depending on what you’re trying to learn. We’ve identified four types of pulses that can be highly effective. Evaluative pulses are designed to assess the impact of a specific organizational event or intervention such as a leadership training program or a communications campaign. Sense making pulses allow the workforce to share their feedback, observations, and input on complex issues such as product innovation or customer service. Lifecycle pulses track the employee experience over critical phases or transition periods like a new hire’s onboarding or a new manager’s first 90 days. And exploratory pulses use generative research questions to encourage leaders, managers, and employees to think in new ways and develop new insights.

But it’s important to remember that pulsing isn’t a panacea. Unfortunately, some organizations are plunging into the pulsing process with little forethought. Many assume that mere monitoring—administering a quarterly pulse to a random sample of employees—is enough. This approach usually produces an abundance of data and reports, but little meaningful insight or action.

Case in point: a client recently wanted to take a set of items from their annual survey and administer them to a random sample of employees on a quarterly basis. When we asked what they were trying to learn, they said their senior leaders wanted to make sure that immediate managers were making progress on these items because of low scores on the last census. We pointed out that their proposed sampling strategy wouldn’t allow them to pinpoint which managers were making progress and which weren’t. Based on their goals, we proposed a different pulsing strategy that targeted at-risk teams.

In today’s dynamic business environment, pulsing is a critical tool that can generate evidence-based insights for leaders, managers, and employees. But without a clear strategic plan in place, pulses can backfire, producing more noise than signal. Before conducting your next pulse, we recommend considering these foundational questions:

1. From a business perspective, what is your organization trying to learn? Why?
2. From a measurement perspective, what are the critical concepts and constructs your organization wants to explore?
3. What type of pulse are you planning: evaluative, sense making, lifecycle, or exploratory?
4. What are the critical populations of interest? All Employees? Specific units? Particular demographic groups?
5. How are you planning to share results? Who are you planning to distribute results to?
6. What do you plan to do with the results? Will leaders and managers be expected to take action based on results? If so, are they clear about their roles and responsibilities, and do they have the support they need?

Unless our clients have clear answers to these questions, we’ve found they’re not ready to conduct a successful pulse.

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