Employee engagement is a concept that is both old and new at the same time. There is a growing volume of research literature on the topic, which I will not describe in detail here. “Engagement” has been used to refer to everything from traditional measures like job satisfaction and commitment, to new measurements that include thriving, energy, and discretionary effort.
The implied causal model says that higher employee engagement leads to better business performance. On one hand, there is evidence to suggest that having more engaged employees in certain customer-facing roles can directly contribute to improved business performance; this is the argument made by the authors of The Service Profit Chain – customers will buy more if they are treated well. All else being equal, having more engaged employees should be better for organizational performance. Yet that is NOT the same thing as saying that if organizations improve measured employee engagement, that business results will improve; that is the causal conclusion that cannot be universally supported by either data or logic. The answer can be found by paying proper attention to what is being measured and the true causes of business performance.
A different type of new data collection will come from social media platforms at work. Companies are experimenting with adapting in-house versions, such as Yammer, that can be used for communication and peer-to-peer networking. Like the early days of cell phones and the internet, we are at an inflection point where it is clear that businesses are almost certain to redefine key processes around the usage of social media platforms at work. The challenge at this point is we don’t fully know what those innovations will be, though we can make educated guesses.
Knowledge management is one potential contribution. Social media platforms can provide a user-driven exchange of information that spans functional, geographic, and cultural boundaries. Personalized professional profiles, like those found on LinkedIn, may aid project assignment, promotion, and career planning. If companies build successful in-house platforms where employees share their experiences and goals, there will be improved matching of employees, teams and projects.
Better access to existing data: The new data described above provide insights into when, where, and how employees do their jobs, yet do not explain why employees do what they do – their motivation and engagement. On this front, there is not much new data to be collected that hasn’t been collected before: we know the questions to ask and have collected these types of data for two generations using interviews and surveys. What is different today is the ease of getting the data: data collection methods have improved greatly, providing potentially deeper insights on larger groups of employees at more frequent intervals.
The tools for conducting electronic employee surveys and providing real-time feedback continue to improve. Today anyone can design a low- or no-cost survey. Of course, designing an effective survey requires more than just throwing a bunch of questions up on Survey Monkey. Yet the technological barriers to conducting extensive surveys have been removed for good. Today the only real barriers are created by survey fatigue and the challenges of rallying the organization to take action on the data. The costs of fielding a survey from a technological perspective are too small to be a barrier.
A more recent innovation is shorter “pulse” surveys that are used for more frequent monitoring of employee attitudes. One use of these surveys is more real-time measurement of key questions from an annual employee survey on a quarterly or more frequent basis. A second use is measuring progress and improving organizational change initiatives: this can include open-ended questions that enable employees to raise issues and contribute ideas. The pulse surveys can complement actions taken in response to the annual employee survey, including monitoring the progress of change.
A final innovation in reporting relates to manager feedback of survey data. Today automated summaries for each manager of how their direct reports responded are possible. The individualized feedback reports can be used for benchmarking against other managers’ performance in the organization, and for comparison with previous year’s performance and trend analysis.
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