Lewis Garrad

Managing Director, Asia Pacific

Observations from the HCI Employee Engagement Conference (Denver, Colorado, USA)

It was a pleasure to attend the 2016 HCI Employee Engagement conference this July in Colorado. More than 400 attendees joined industry experts from across the world to discuss the latest trends in employee engagement research and practice. I wanted to summarise the three key points that I heard over the two days we were there, particularly from the informal conversations rather than from the presentations:

Access to employee feedback is becoming more fluid and dynamic.

While it was clear that the range of engagement practices and capabilities is still rather wide, one of the clear trends is towards a more fluid process for capturing employee views. Whereas 15 years ago many were only conducting employee survey every other year (for fear of drowning their line managers in overwhelming feedback), it’s now common for most to want an annual survey or something more frequent.

In response to this, organisations that have robust HRIS systems and a strong internal foundation for HR technology have started to experiment wi

th new tools to test out more regular measurement through pulsing or sampling. This is helping them to test the balance between the need for comprehensive census survey data (for local level team reporting & strategic insight), with lighter but more regular feedback.

The real (and new) opportunity for many seems to be through the combination of technology and industrial/organisational psychology expertise. Although technology for faster surveys has been around for a while, ensuring that feedback programs are designed in a way that is aligned to the strategy and context of the organisation, as well as grounded in cutting edge science is still critical for success.

For example, Sirota and Kanjoya have released a product that allows companies to create real time pulse surveys while having access to more than 40 years of data insights, supported by experienced industrial psychologists who can advise on organisation science and action strategies. By leveraging the strengths of both companies, deeper insights become possible.

These new technologies are also allowing HR and line leaders to get insights from unstructured data like written comments more quickly. Natural language processing has now improved to such an extent that tools can code written text in real time allowing for up-to-date sentiment and content analysis.

Using the data to generate real improvement will need a change in leadership mindset

While capability for capturing and analysing feedback is moving rapidly, the pace of improvement in terms of advice for what to do with it is much less clear. Indeed, this isn’t uncommon for many new technologies – for example fitness trackers (like the Apple watch or FitBit) have become remarkably good at measuring physical activity but still struggle to really drive significant behaviour change for health improvement. At the moment the best these tools can offer is some form of goal setting combined with nudges/alerts for long periods of inactivity (“get up off your ass” messages). For those who need it most these things are unlikely to make a big impact on their own. The analogy to engagement and survey feedback then is quite clear – those who need to use the feedback most are usually the ones most likely to need advice about how to improve.

Along the same lines it seems that many organisations still find that line leaders are pre-disposed to focus more on their intuition and experience when it comes to people rather than acting on what the data tells them. To respond to this problem some forward thinking HR functions are also exploring HR analytics and data connections in a much more purposeful way. This is helping to build credibility for HR but also helping to demonstrate how data can be used to improve people management much like it has for other functions (like marketing and finance).  For example, many are looking at tools that connect engagement data with leader assessments and employee personality to create more tailored guidance for leaders.

As organisations become more focused on the performance of a network of leaders and teams rather than a hierarchy of them (note – the importance of leaders is still very high; it’s not just about teams) the consistency of behaviour and action across disparate groups is becoming even more critical for developing a productive workplace. David Forman, author of “Fearless HR” noted in his presentation that creating stronger networks will be central to boosting organisational capability. Having data driven insights (rather than strongly held opinions) about how to make that happen will be extremely valuable.

Engagement all the time is unrealistic

A number of the speakers such as Tony Schwatz and Douglas Hutton talked about Engagement in terms of personal energy which needs to be managed and recharged. This view of engagement demonstrates a sensible shift in thinking about engagement at work. The idea that everyone can be engaged all the time seems unrealistic and unsophisticated. This starts to refocus conversations about engagement to be more considerate of what the right balance is. Driving up engagement all the time might not be what some organisations need to do as other outcomes might be more important.

For example, innovation was a key topic at the conference. Both Alex Goryachev from Cisco and Brady Pyle from NASA talked at length in their presentations about how important it is to leverage employee feedback to drive innovation. The cultural elements for productive innovation were highlighted alongside the internal processes that are required to deliver innovation outcomes (new ideas that turn into commercial opportunities). What caught my attention was how important it was to have some element of competition as well as recognition built into the process. These messages demonstrate thinking around the topic of using feedback and survey data that didn’t focus on engagement outcomes.

Other organisations, like government agencies, were focused on finding out how to be a great place to work. For some, this goal was an end in itself – an initiative to boost employee retention and employer brand. For others this goal was more in service of productivity and performance outcomes like customer service and sales.

The point here is that while many still recognise engagement as a useful concept, the way that some organisations are using employee feedback and survey data is highly dependent on what they want to achieve rather than simply having a high engagement score.

And finally, a noticeable absence

While other areas of HR are starting to adopt data science approaches, there wasn’t much discussion of how data science can be used in the context of employee engagement (other than how to figure out engagement drivers, which represents a very linear and simplistic view). With new technologies coming into talent acquisition and identification (like digital interviews, crowd sourced evaluations, gamification, etc) it was surprising that data scientists were not more present at the event. Perhaps in future, we’ll be seeing more of them.

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