By: Nick Starritt, Managing Director, Europe, Middle East, and Africa
Why do so many organisations struggle to create action on the results of their employee survey? Normative data indicates that only 47% of people acknowledge they have seen action on the results of their organisation’s most recent employee survey. Yet the case for engagement has now been made, and the connection with business results is evident – so why wouldn’t managers want to act on their survey results? Maybe we need to look at how managers act upon other business data to figure out what’s missing.
Almost every company has what’s called a management information system (MIS). This is the internal set of data which provides the framework for management decision making, at all levels. Essentially, it’s the backbone for managing performance. Managed in the right way, your engagement survey can become part of the MIS, sitting alongside financial and operational data – and providing managers with another ‘lever’ to create the desired level of performance. Moreover, with a robust and well-designed set of engagement data, HR is more likely to be viewed as an equal to the finance and marketing functions, using evidence based arguments to justify investment and interventions. So what are the principles behind a good MIS process?
Clearly, data needs to be relevant to catch the attention of busy managers. To be useful, it needs to relate to a manager’s goals and challenges. Equally, the data must have a frequency and a reliability upon which they can depend. In the context of an employee survey, this means measuring the right things and establishing a rhythm which matches the organisation’s expectations. Nowadays, most engagement surveys go beyond general measures of satisfaction and the ‘HR agenda’ of attitudes towards compensation, training and development opportunities. Relevant surveys now address broader aspects of the daily work experience. They include questions about business process like speed of decision-making and authority levels; perceptions of customer service and innovation; views about the relevance of safety procedures and adequacy of equipment and resources, plus impressions of leadership and immediate manager practices. In other words, the survey measures the things most managers need to manage to deliver performance. But nothing in business is static, so refreshing your questionnaire to ensure it conforms with the strategy and business imperatives is the best way to keep it relevant. An annual census survey creates a predictable rhythm. Technology now enables periodic ‘pulse’ surveys and enables you to track progress, thereby keeping managers informed.
The principle of proximity means that action gets taken by those who are most likely to influence the outcome. Executives are responsible for generating strategy, values and overall performance; immediate managers determine day to day priorities and focus their team on executing strategy. That’s why the MIS segments data and aggregates reports depending upon who ‘has the say’ over the results. The employee survey needs to mirror this framework, with reporting down to a level consistent with authority and employee confidentiality. Executives need to see the overall themes and the variance between the major lines of business/functions, to evaluate the consistency of people management practice across the organisation, so they can determine the big strategic interventions. Managers need to see team data, progress since last period and – to create some ‘edge’ – where they stand relative to peers and external benchmarks. Increasingly, HR needs the ability to analyse the entire database, to provide the additional insights which functions like financial analysis and planning apply to other forms of MIS.
Data doesn’t sit in a vacuum; it informs decisions and prompts action. Financial and operating data may include many different dimensions and elements but usually, it has focus. There are only so many things on which any manager can focus, so the MIS points to a small set of pre-determined measures or outcomes. Experience shows that good survey analysis contains the same focus, usually including a strong outcome measure such as the engagement index. Don’t expect your managers to ‘boil the ocean’ and address every question in the survey. Give them a framework, or a form of analysis that helps them distil the data to priority areas where they score low, relative to internal or external benchmarks, so they can channel their energy. Insist that they target no more than 2 or 3 issues from their results – focusing on the things they judge are most likely to drive up team performance. And ensure they communicate those actions to their team, to create a more binding commitment on all parties.
The last, and arguably most important, principle surrounds accountability. Companies don’t create elaborate MIS just for the fun of it. It’s a precursor to accountability – a principle with which every manager is familiar. If you take the case that engagement matters and that it correlates strongly with performance, then it would surely be unbusiness-like not to take action on the results. Even if your culture doesn’t support a target-setting approach towards survey results, there are other ways to stimulate action. Consider the power of peer pressure. Who wants to be in the bottom quartile of any business result? Create a variance analysis curve of the team engagement scores and show that to any manager and she or he will tell you immediately where to intervene. Or, create a peer group of managers, say 6-8 individuals at the same level, and give them a target of improving survey scores across the entire peer group by more than the sum of the individual parts. Then watch as they challenge each other to improve.
The old saying of ‘what’s gets measured, gets managed’ has survived in business because it’s valid. To create a culture of action around the employee survey process involves more than just securing a healthy response rate. By making the survey data resemble other forms of management information, with a solid set of principles, you will create a propensity to act. And in doing so, you raise the chances the survey will support improved organisational performance.