OPINION11 November 2010

Modernising employee engagement measurement

Opinion

Employee engagement measurement is in a poor state – lagging ‘way behind’ customer and brand research, says Andy Brown. It’s time to play catch-up.

Employees are pivotal to the performance of any organisation. As some of the most influential business research around the balanced scorecard, service-profit chain and organisational performance drivers has found, employees are the first, vital link in almost any corporate profit chain:

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The recession and its aftermath has heightened the need for organisations to understand their employee engagement levels. Markets have tightened, redundancies have been widespread and restructuring has been the norm rather than the exception. This has changed the relationship between employees, their employers, their customers and the performance of their organisations. Trust in leadership has plummeted; competition for customers has rocketed; and relative efficiency, productivity and performance are even more important differentiators for investors.

Attracting, engaging and retaining talent is, therefore, vital to creating customer engagement and, in turn, driving profitability, growth and shareholder return. As many firms begin to emerge from the depths of our deepest downturn for generations, the role of employees in driving recovery is now more intense than ever.

Yet how we measure the engagement of this critical group is still blighted by a number of factors. As a research practice area, it seems often to be rooted in the dark ages. Specialist engagement consultancies, organisational development advisers and management consultancies have modernised and made more sophisticated their approach to engagement measurement. Meanwhile, the research industry has, for the most part, stood still for the last 20 years.

So, what’s wrong with the current approach?

Too off-the-shelf
The vast majority of employee engagement surveys are still made up from off-the-shelf questionnaires. While this is an incredibly profitable model for the research industry it does little to help clients. Similar questionnaires from the same research provider using the same “model” of engagement might be used for clients as diverse as a major retailer and large civil service department. Do we really believe that what engages a till operator and a senior public servant are one and the same?

In part, this is driven by a demand for external benchmarking. Clients often want to be able to compare their own scores with those of their competitors. However, from a research industry perspective, this has led to a lazy approach to questionnaire design.

Too employer-employee focused
The majority of employee research uses a very narrow definition and model of engagement. In the same way that “job satisfaction” research was too narrow in the 1980s and early 1990s, most engagement models still focus solely on the relationship between employer and employee – on issues such as line management, reward and career development.

Very few engagement models focus on either how to engage the employee with customer service delivery or with how to optimise performance. In light of the focus of many organisations on the customer and performance differentials in the post-recession economy, this cannot be sustainable.

Too descriptive
The outputs of most employee engagement surveys are still far too simplistic. They provide masses of “scores on the doors” but very little strategic analysis to help advise organisations about what to do to improve engagement. Most providers are still pumping out high-volume, purely descriptive data reports. Board presentations which consist of 150 slides of multi-coloured bar-charts are still too common.

While customer and brand research has, for a long time now, embraced data reduction techniques and smart analytics to condense survey data down to a few strategic pictures, most employee engagement researchers are still living in a world where PowerPoint volume is king.

The industry needs to address and debate best practice in employee engagement measurement. From my point of view effective employee engagement needs to be tailored. Good studies begin with either a strategic review of the business (its strategy, objectives, vision and values) or in-depth qualitative research used to define a bespoke model of engagement supported by an equally tailored survey questionnaire.

This will involve less lowest common denominator research and, in particular, less enforced benchmarking. But it will lead to much more effective employee research which helps the client organisation to improve its performance.

Engagement models also need to change to focus not simply on the employer-employee relationship but also on:

  • Connection to the strategy: how well do employees understand and connect to what the organisation is trying to achieve as a whole
  • Engagement with performance: what drives employees to optimise their productivity and performance (as opposed to being satisfied with their employer)
  • Engagement with the customer: what engages employees to be customer-focused and to put themselves in the shoes of the customer every day (as opposed to what engages them with their employer – a very different question)

To enhance the sophistication of how employee engagement results are presented, analytic techniques employed for years in customer and brand research need to be adopted and adapted. Improved techniques include:

  • Strategic priority analysis: combining descriptive and predictive analytics to help identify key strength areas and critical priority areas for clients in order to help them optimise engagement levels
  • Key driver analysis: in the same way factor and regression analyses are used to identify the key drivers of customer behaviours and attitudes, the same techniques need to be used systematically to assess what issues will generate the highest levels of employee engagement
  • Segmentation analysis: while almost every customer research strategy involves the use of cluster analysis to identify customer typologies and their segmented drivers, the same approach needs to be used for employee data sets. Few sledgehammer HR approaches work – employee engagement research needs to identify employee clusters to aid segmented people strategies.
  • Return-on-engagement (RoE) analysis: engagement must be linked to the bottom-line to have any credibility at board-level. While there’s lots of talk about doing this, it still remains a rare deliverable at the end of most engagement surveys.

Employee engagement research needs to make a leap. It has the potential in the post-recession, new world economy, to become a competitive differentiator for client organisations. Without a move towards more tailored approaches, business-focused models and smarter analytics, this activity will not have a long-term future in the domain of the research industry.

Andy Brown is a partner at Engage Group. At director level, he has worked previously in the research industry at Gallup, Harris Interactive, Mori and YouGov Consulting.

3 Comments

11 years ago

I could not agree more. We have challenged the conventional wisdom on this issue for a while now. With only 16% of those using a survey getting positive results something has got to change. That is why I wrote the book on this subject called Employee Engagement: A Roadmap for Creating Profits, Optimizing Performance, and Increasing Loyalty. www.engagementleader.com www.performancepointllc.com

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11 years ago

Yawn. A identikit "paper" that really doesn't say much at all.. motivated/engaged employees, are good for your business. Shock, Horror. That will be 50,000 quid pls. Is this the best that the Employee Research World, has to offer? Some sub standard fare that wasn't very groundbreaking 15 years ago, when it was first being touted.

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11 years ago

Yo Sammy, I charge much more than £50k to get this stuff right, it's called return on engagement and the board just love it. 15 years is a long time...

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