Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Dec 19, 2005
Columns - People Wise
Should you do that survey?
Why is it that what was once a powerful organisation development intervention has become a source of cynicism? Is it to do with the way it is designed and executed, or the objectives or the timing or its frequency? In the age of such low tenure and such a dynamic business environment, is the organisation survey itself irrelevant?
To understand the issue better, we begin by first tracing the history of the organisation survey movement.
Organisation surveys of one kind or the other have been undertaken ever since the 1920s and the 1930s. These were typically surveys emerging out of academic interest and focused initially on tracking the impact of industrial engineering and work studies on workmen.
For several years thereafter, in the 1960s and the 1970s, survey efforts were focused on preserving positive employee relations, understanding employee needs and preventing unionisation efforts.
Around the same time, the first effort to formalise, standardise and share survey results across organisations was taken by organisations such as IBM, Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Citicorp, General Electric, Mobil, AT&T, Boeing, and Merrill Lynch under the banner of the Mayflower Group.
In India too, surveys have been in vogue from around the same period. Initiated primarily from an academic and action research perspective, the early focus was on using the surveys as an intervention in itself since it was believed that the very process of creating a collective awareness about current reality influenced change in organisational behaviour quite significantly.
All along this period, the work of behavioural scientists, motivation theorists and even the quality gurus focused organisational attention on the strong linkage between business results and employee results, thereby encouraging them to survey their employees to understand their needs and satisfaction.
More recently, the emergence of the balanced scorecard as a strategy deployment process and its emphasis on employee satisfaction as one of the measures further propelled greater surveys.
In today's context, the acute shortage of talent and the fear of attrition have led organisations to invest in regularly checking the pulse of their employees in one form or the other.
It may, therefore, be concluded that organisation surveys have served as a powerful tool to educate organisations about their employees, increase awareness about their needs, motives and concerns and even serve as a system of building checks and balances around organisation and managerial behaviour.
What then seems to have gone wrong with the survey efforts of organisations today? Quite a bit.
Do not be ignorant of the science behind it
The organisation survey has its origin and roots in the science of organisation behaviour and also social research. This includes not only the content but also the process aspects of the survey too.
The easy access to survey solutions off the shelf have led organisations to use them almost recklessly, with little understanding of the science behind surveys, the care required to use them well and most importantly the risks accompanying misuse.
It would help if today's practitioners were to augment their knowledge about the science and fundamentals that govern organisation surveys so that they have the contextual awareness and the ability to manage its consequences intelligently.
Act on what you know first
Quite often CEOs and HR leaders decide to commission a survey to obtain fresh insights when they are already sitting on adequate amount of insights. This leads to management spending time on more and more validation and affirmation instead of quick and decisive action in a few priority areas.
Where organisations have a fair amount of data on key issues, it would be advisable to get started with addressing these areas before going out and seeking more. Having more and more insights without action only leads to a feeling of frustration at all levels.
Have the end in mind
Organisations embark on surveys with no clear end objective in mind. Without a base hypothesis, surveys are like shooting in the dark. Let us understand this little better. The ranges of issues that any survey can cover are obviously very large. You can deal with culture, climate, managerial practices, and satisfaction with policies and so on.
Organisations must have a hypothesis to begin with in terms of what they think needs exploration and greater understanding before they design the survey intervention.
Organisation may rely on their own informal sensing or random feedback, critical events of the recent past and exit interview trends to frame the hypothesis. They may even undertake a qualitative research effort to validate this initial hypothesis.
Without focus and clarity of objectives, organisations can end up saddled with a very large, directionless and unrealistic agenda.
Readiness to confront reality
Quite often organisations may not have the readiness to undertake such a survey or deal with its outcomes. Timing is very important. If the organisation is preoccupied with major developments and events or is undergoing leadership change, it may not be able to handle the outcomes of the survey effectively.
This does not however mean that the organisation remains insensitive to the needs of the change situation it is handling. In fact, the organisation may be so focused on managing an existing change or transition situation to avoid employee dissatisfaction that it may not want to add to its problems. HR must be sensitive to these subtle realities and feel free to defer its plans if needed. Not deciding to do a survey is as important a decision as doing one.
To improve, build a culture of shared ownership
One of the biggest problems of surveys is the mistaken impression that business leaders and HR leaders create about "who owns the responsibility for corrective actions." Quite often the young employee and the manager believe that all problems in the organisation need to be resolved by the CEO or HR.
In reality, this is seldom the case. There are several people who are indeed responsible for managing the things that emerge from a survey.
Operating managers may have to do things differently. HR may have to do a few things. The CEO may have to do a few things. Most important, the individual employees themselves may have to redefine their expectations and beliefs about many things in the Organisation.
Finally, there might be issues that may have no visible solution in the immediate future. Ensuring that this clarify emerges is quite often a challenge that is overlooked.
Organisations give the impression of being capable of dealing with everything that comes out of the survey.
In fact, in today's organisational context of a large number of young employees with short tenure, I believe that a lot of work has to go into helping employees read and interpret organisational reality in the right context.
Employees tend to have unrealistic expectations about pay, careers, their managers, the work environment, and even their CEOs. The survey design and communication needs to factor this carefully.
Managing the process scientifically
The greatest effort in an organisation survey effort is not in the survey itself but in the work involved thereafter. This is where organisations go so badly wrong.
At the end of the day, a survey gives us only one part of the story. It tells us only "what". It is only the respondents to the survey who can tell us "how" to fix it. The skill is in getting the respondents to think along with you and give you ideas on "how".
To do this, managers who are responsible need a very high degree of "process" skills. They must know how to work with their team members in an inclusive manner to unravel insights. Equally, they must have the skill to moderate, clarify and confront.
Organisations also need to manage this "feedback and ideation" process in a time-bound manner. Quite often I have seen that this part of the exercise goes into an endless loop. More and more teams are created and they end up chasing their tails, not knowing how to close.
Here is where the facilitation and consulting skills of the HR leader come in handy.
If the organisation loses interest after taking one curious look at the survey results and then gets busy with the next initiative, we are setting ourselves up for serious credibility erosion. Part of this is also the care with which the entire communication process is handled during the exercise.
A survey is indeed a very powerful diagnostic tool and intervention to drive and improve organisational health. However, as in the case of human health, a battery of diagnostic tests takes you nowhere. You need an equally good doctor and supportive patient to really make a difference.
(The author is founder and CEO of totus consulting, which designs and implements HR systems and processes for organisations across diverse industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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