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In part two of his three-part series covering the IABC Victoria and Coral Communications 2013 iC Survey, Nick Barnes looks at employee engagement measurement. He finds that measuring engagement isn't enough. You've got to show how engagement drives business performance if you really want to see action across the organisation. 



Those of us with first-hand experience of measuring engagement will I’m sure agree that the most common and persistent complaint about engagement survey programs is the absence of a robust post-survey action planning mechanism which enables data to be acted upon swiftly.  Companies diligently measure employee engagement, relentlessly analyse the data, and go to great lengths to communicate their survey results. Yet engagement doesn't improve.

To quote a client I was working with recently, on the eve of launching their global engagement survey:

“I don’t think any of us will have the energy or the time to even look at the results.  I know my team won’t.  It’s not that they’re not interested, it’s just that there’ll be more important things to focus on”. 

Engagement research, while insightful, often fails to instil the impetus for people to either take action or make an impact with the action they take. So why, if engagement, as most organisations now recognise, is a strategic driver to delivering improved operational performance, does it appear to be so challenging to take targeted and effective action?

Imagine productivity is down in the factory due to a fault with a piece of machinery. A specialist team is hired to identify the location of the fault. They provide a comprehensive report identifying the components that need fixing and a blueprint for how to fix it.  Do you think, a week, a month, six months, or a year down the line, that the machine would not have been repaired?  That productivity would still be down due to the fault?  Or even that managers would claim to be too busy to look at the report?

It is unlikely. And why?  Because the link between a machine fault and productivity is clear and quantifiable; repair the fault and increase performance. In a climate where it is more and more about getting the biggest bang for your buck, an intuitive link between engagement and performance is not enough to inform targeted action.

So how do organisations evolve and develop their engagement research to provide the crucial, tangible link to operational performance and the bottom line that inspires and forces direct action?


Measuring the missing links

Engagement is often measured and analysed in isolation, with most considering this sufficient as an end in itself.  Engagement is both an ‘input’ and ‘output’; a process of engaging employees – for example, an input, via leadership action or through team and line manager communications, as well as an objective or an output.   Defining which engagement factors should be measured therefore, can be challenging. But getting it right is critical, as engagement is as important to a business as understanding any other cost or revenue driver.

As well as understanding employees’ emotional and intellectual connection to their business – i.e. the extent to which they are vocal ambassadors – organisations need to develop and broaden their research so that it focuses on how ‘active’ its employees are.

Engagement programs need to be structured in a way that not only captures where effort is being applied but crucially, the level of effort.  This is a critical addition because it is employee discretionary effort that makes measurable differences to organisational performance.  Knowing that people are willing to go the extra mile will highlight the extent to which there is a performance deficit to be exploited with the right action.

Measuring discretionary effort is a logical extension of an evolution that has seen organisations survey employee ‘satisfaction’, then ‘engagement’.

Secondly, organisations need to measure engagement metrics in line with other operational KPIs. 

Showing whether, where and how employee engagement is directly linked to other business performance metrics, and not the other way around, will make engagement resonate as a driver of performance.  However, it is not easy and it is rare to find organisations who do this and do it well.

Often, organisations do not collect or monitor reliable operational data at a granular level to enable links to be made.  As a result, organisations fall back on making assumptions and relying upon the intuitive link.  This is doing them and their employees a disservice.

Organisations that examine and can make the connection between engagement, discretionary effort and other business measures capture powerful, action-inspiring information that makes engagement significantly more relevant and relatable in a business context, helping deliver competitive advantage. Why?  Because organisations can use their engagement data much more effectively to understand where it is impacting on business performance, and where it is not.


Tightening your focus

According to the 2013 iC Survey, 83% of people who conduct engagement research biannually, found that the feedback they garner helps make a difference. This compares with just 55% of those who measure biennially.

As the research infers, securing value from your research; understanding how and where engagement is impacting business performance, is difficult to achieve through large-scale annual or biennial surveys. Organisations who adopt this approach generally survey across a wide range of subject areas, with generic questions which cannot reflect real understanding of business priorities.

Effective measurement needs to be short, sharp, responsive and in line with changing business performance requirements. This means reducing the scale and depth of the measurement to focus on the areas which have the greatest potential to directly impact business performance, where and when it matters most.

Asking the ‘right’ questions and synchronising the insights from engagement surveys with wider business metrics will enhance the process and enable a periodic process of review of where and how engagement is affecting organisational performance.  Once an organisation knows where engagement or the lack of it is affecting performance, it can put in place highly targeted action plans to exploit opportunities and buttress areas of weakness.


Discretionary effort and how communicators can make the difference

It is difficult to describe discretionary effort without using metaphors: going the extra mile; going above and beyond; making a difference; making it count.  Any credible discussion about discretionary effort is linked to what is called ‘alignment’; effort can only be effective if it is aligned to and focused on the right business priorities and behaviours.

Creating the right focus is what effective employee communications is all about. If employees do not guide their efforts in the right direction, then they will not be able to make a difference to the business priorities, regardless of how far they go beyond the call of duty.

If employees have a good understanding of their business priorities, their role and how they can improve what they do, then their discretionary effort can make a difference to the bottom line. To achieve high levels of discretionary effort employees need to ‘understand’ and ‘believe’ before they can ‘act’ in a way that makes a positive difference.


The final word

The goal of measuring engagement should not be to drive engagement scores higher and higher, but to understand how engagement is impacting business performance.  Measurement of discretionary effort is core to this but must be contextualised by both the quality of effort and how well it is aligned to the priorities.

By directing disproportionate attention to the areas of the business that matter most, an organisation can add enormous value and clearly demonstrate the return on any investments made. Linking engagement to business metrics is an obvious, yet important next step that all organisations should be considering when seeking to strengthen competitive advantage.


If you'd like a copy of the IABC Victoria / Coral Communications iC survey report, go here and drop Nick a line.




Nick Barnes is a specialist in measuring people engagement, with more than 10 years agency experience supporting some of the world’s best known and most complex organisations, including HSBC, BP, Travelocity and BAA.  Nick has extensive experience working in and in close partnership with HR and Corporate Communications, in the areas of measurement , strategy creation and brand,.  Nick spent 11 years in London before moving to Australia in 2012 to establish Coral Communications.  Nick believes strongly in partnering with people to develop and deliver complimentary and sustainable communications and measurement strategies.


Helping people in business thrive! 

At Coral, we partner with people; likeminded professionals who are passionate about creating an environment where people can thrive.  We help connect a business with its people.  How do we do this?  By restoring the balance to your communications processes; activating brands in the hearts and minds of people; holding the mirror on what matters most; and releasing creativity by navigating the path to innovation.