Don’t Kill Your Continuous Listening Program Before It Starts

There has been a lot written lately about how frequently organizations should ask employees for their input. An article in Harvard Business Review speaks to companies that “need daily or weekly data on employee motivation to identify and fix motivational issues at the individual, team, and unit level.” A piece in The Economic Times states, “The objective behind this shift is to capture real-time employee engagement experience and make improvements. On any given day, an employee may be happy about his or her salary, but may not be as content with the work environment. The engagement level may be high with respect to camaraderie, but the food in the cafeteria may not be up to the mark.”

What can employee listening learn from customer listening?

This notion of continuous listening has become a bit of a buzzword in HR circles. While continuous listening is the topic of dozens of articles and presentations and whitepapers, there is no single, clear, and agreed-upon definition of “continuous listening.” Continuous listening might mean a high-frequency survey design, be it daily, weekly, or monthly. It could mean a combination of an annual employee engagement surveys and lifecycle surveys, which add the combination of onboarding and exit surveys into the mix. Special topic pulse surveys can be added in for good measure. Continuous listening really means continuous data, an ongoing flow of survey responses from employees. The data is from multiple points in time, and may or may not include multiple topic areas and employee subgroups.

Companies listen to their customers continuously, so why not listen to employees the same way? This assumption makes sense on a surface level, but it’s important to unpack it. Customers are asked for feedback after they have had a defined interaction with a company. It might be a sale, it might be a service call, or it might be any other experience with the organization. The survey is designed to understand the elements of that specific interaction and allow for problem-solving.

If the model of collecting continuous customer data is a valuable reference point, could we do the same for employees? Can we send relevant questions to specific employees to gain insights at the moments that matter in their relationship with the company, whether that is onboarding, a promotion into management, completion of a development program, or exiting the organization? Could we make the results available just to specific users that are empowered to act, or to all employees to increase transparency? Absolutely. Technology allows for all of that. But in a world where technology makes just about anything possible, what’s the right thing to do?

HR teams have longed aspired to be strategic partners to the senior leaders in their organization. Given that numbers and data are the language of executives, HR teams that are armed with facts and statistics that support their recommendations can play a truly strategic role in driving decisions about people. Continuous listening programs can be the source of the data needed to become that strategic partner.

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Five considerations before adding continuous listening to your organization

Continuous listening can be a valuable tool for HR and senior leaders, but only if designed and implemented thoughtfully and strategically.

  1. It is always a mistake to determine methodology before determining strategy. Much of the attention given to continuous listening is the focus it has placed on a methodology, rather than on how the data are to be used. Implementing a quarterly/monthly/daily survey without a clear strategy for what is to be measured, why the data are needed, and who will use the data is a recipe for failure. When it comes to continuous listening, there is no one-size-fits-all, no single design or methodology that works for every company.
  2. Continuous listening is most valuable when it is driven by the information needs of the organization. The organization’s strategy is a good place to start. Strategy inevitably has people implications, whether the ability to retain critical talent, reshape culture, manage global growth, or communicate in new ways. Designing a listening program around strategic initiatives enables HR teams to come to the table with facts and data that allow senior leaders to make sound data-driven decisions about people.
  3. Continuous listening programs must collect the right data. An hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, or annual feed of data is useless if it isn’t the right data. The right data is illuminating, insightful, actionable, and tied to HR and organization strategy. Onboarding, exit, or training satisfaction data are only valuable to an organization if the questions are relevant to strategic people issues, the data are accessible and easy to analyze and interpret, and there is a designated user that is empowered to act. It doesn’t matter how fresh the data are, or how frequently updates are provided. If it isn’t the right data, it is completely pointless.
  4. There is a big difference between collecting data and listening. HR teams may have scads of data at their disposal, but without analytics tools and capabilities, they won’t know what it all means. Data from multiple sources requires the ability and tools to pull it all together, to synthesize all of these streams into an integrated set of insights. Having data from multiple surveys can be a bit like being in a meeting where everyone is speaking at once. They may all have good insights, but if there is no way to corral all of that information, some way to sequence and organize it, and understand the sometimes-subtle connections between all of the data streams, then it is just noise.
  5. There is an even bigger difference between listening and acting. With all the talk about Continuous Listening, why isn’t anyone talking about Continuous Acting? Shouldn’t someone DO something with all this data? Action and meaningful change are most likely to occur when there is a designated user of the data. This user must be empowered to implement actions to drive change, but also needs to be involved in the design of the listening tool to ensure that the right data are being collected.

An issue often raised in the discussion of continuous listening programs is that of survey fatigue, the notion that if we aren’t careful with how frequently we send surveys to employees, they will grow weary of answering the questions and stop responding. But is the frequency of asking questions the culprit in survey fatigue, or is it something else? Employees grow weary of answering questions when nothing happens as a result of their — when it’s all listening and no acting. Listening isn’t enough. Continuous listening must evolve to become continuous conversations, with all parties involved in asking, answering, discussing, and acting. Employees will answer questions all day long if they see evidence that their input drives changes and improvements that are meaningful to them.

There is more than meets the eye when it comes to implementing a continuous listening program in any organization. A successful continuous listening strategy is more than just an ongoing stream of data. It provides the right data at the right time to the right users. Succeed at that, and HR truly becomes a strategic partner to senior leaders.

Dr. Sarah Johnson, VP of enterprise surveys and analytics at Perceptyx, Inc., specializes in employee engagement, organizational development and effectiveness, and survey data analysis – advising senior leaders at Fortune 500 firms around the world for over 20 years.

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