Before You Do Another Annual Engagement Survey, Do Something Different

Engagement can mean a lot of different things, but in analytics, it tends to mean the data one gets from an annual engagement survey. Engagement surveys were a boon to HR when they were new, however, now they feel out of touch with the times. The idea that we’ll do a huge annual project, spend months analyzing the data, and then take action a year or more after whatever was driving the scores seems anachronistic.

Perhaps it’s a good time to consider the different ways we could approach engagement data. Here are some things to consider:

Very frequent data collection — Pulse surveys — short frequent surveys — are a step in the right direction. Perhaps we should think of these as the core means of gathering data and driving change; rather than as an optional add-on to the annual process. If pulse surveys are really effective, then do we need to do an annual survey?

Individualized data — We tend to report engagement in aggregates (e.g. engagement in department X), however fundamentally it’s a metric about individuals. Personalized surveys pointed to specific needs, rather than generalized pulse surveys that ask everyone the same questions, could lead to much more targeted action. Attuned.ai does this by asking questions tuned to the motives that drive each individual. If the goal is to improve individual performance, then perhaps engagement data should be about individuals. This will require some significant changes to how we think about gathering and using engagement data since it will no longer be anonymous, but much about an employee’s attitude and performance isn’t anonymous in any case.

Looking for data sources other than surveys — If we keep stepping back to ask, “Why are we gathering engagement data?” then we free ourselves from a narrow focus on surveys. If we want to know how to reduce turnover or improve discretionary effort, we can look for signals in absenteeism and lateness to highlight problems. A more high-tech approach is to experiment with sentiment analysis on company emails to watch mood changes. We may end up moving away from old definitions of engagement to a suite of measures that help us improve performance.

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Tightening the link to action — Again, if we ask why we are gathering engagement data then we’ll recognize there is no point gathering data unless we have some idea of how it can drive action. Perhaps we should not gather any data until we’ve articulated how various results (e.g. numbers above or below some threshold) will lead to a set of actions.

I think the time is ripe for a significant change in how we approach engagement. It’s a change that aligns neatly with the desire for more continuous performance management. We are developing the technology and analytical tools to move forward on this. HR should be experimenting with new approaches to measuring, analyzing and acting on engagement data — and that should start not with a discussion of “engagement” but a discussion of what we are trying to accomplish and what kinds of data might help with that.

David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research, is a globally recognized thinker on people analytics and talent management. Some of his more interesting projects included:

  • Conducted workshops around the world on the practical aspects of people analytics
  • Took business leaders from Japan’s Recruit Co. on a tour of US tech companies (Recruit eventually bought Indeed.com for $1 billion)
  • Studied the relationship between Boards and HR (won Walker Award)
  • Spoke at the World Bank in Paris on HR reporting
  • Co-authored Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment with John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan. The book was endorsed by the CHROs of IBM, LinkedIn and Starbucks.
  • Worked with Dr. Wanda Wallace on “Leading when you are not the expert” which topped the “Most Popular List” on the Harvard Business Review’s blog.
  • Worked with Dr. Henry Mintzberg on peer coaching, David’s learning modules are among the most popular topics.

Currently David is helping organizations to get on-track with people analytics.

This work led to him being made a Fellow for the Centre of Evidence-based Management (Netherlands) for his contributions to the field.

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