Do good ideas go unused in your organization? How many times do people withdraw or disengage because they think no one cares or is listening? What innovative ideas are going un-executed because no one knew about them? Increasingly, organizations are learning the value of harnessing the knowledge from within themselves to provide insight into marketplace trends, innovation and the identification of barriers to high performance. Agile organizations use employee intelligence to scan the environment, focus on the best strategy and shift their actions.
Chris Argyris and Peter Senge’s concept of “Learning Organizations” held that an organization could learn as well as an individual. They pointed out that some organizations were better at this than others, and maintained that this capability could be developed and sustained. At the time, the idea outpaced the ability to make this work in large-scale organizations. When this concept first emerged, the technology for getting information that could spark learning was obtained in a highly intensive way (interviews, focus groups, town hall meetings, etc.). This often limited the scope and range of involvement in the learning. Now technology for “pulsing” (obtaining data instantaneously) using e-mail allows for a whole new platform for an interactive style of organizational learning and leadership.
Over the years, information has been gathered from employees by numerous methods. The most pervasive has been the employee survey, which measured satisfaction, and more recently, multiple, uncoordinated indicators such as engagement, alignment and organizational culture. These periodic employee or organizational surveys have several limitations:
- Yearly surveys do not provide information in a timely manner to stay current with changes in a fast-paced, complex and global environment.
- Many surveys gather information, but fail to use the data to hold managers accountable for doing something about the issues that surface. The prevalent focus is on “fixing the numbers” so managerial performance will match a standard.
- Surveys often miss the opportunity to use the data as a catalyst for action. Because of the lag time (often months) between data collection and action, the measures become less accurate due to changes that take place in the mean time.
- Often, surveys collect data on satisfaction, which has not been proved to predict performance. In fact, satisfied people may not want to push for higher levels of performance.
- The aspects measured are often subjective and easily influenced by recent experience. These are often not linked directly to business and therefore are not central to operational outcomes.
- Often senior leaders are “protected” from disquieting news by well-intentioned HR professionals who return a smoothed-out version of the data. Senior leaders can then deflect the “news” by questioning the data collection methods and reducing the information to data points on a PowerPoint presentation, losing the fresh voice of the feedback.
Using Surveys to Engage Innovation
There is an opportunity to actualize the vision of organizational learning, supported by leaders who engage their organizations with new technology and methods of interactive leadership.
According to a report in the “World at Work Journal,” interactive leadership can initiate “data-driven dialogues,” using fresh data from employees to respond to organizational challenges and opportunities. This is more than presenting data, asking for ideas and making an action plan. It is centered on the ability of leaders to facilitate a dialogue where both the manager and the employees are willing to examine their own assumptions, see beyond current solutions and make necessary changes. The ability to question current practices sets up an environment alive with intelligence, where people become energized and managers gain commitment.
Leaders who respond to challenging issues by using real-time data to drive action are better equipped to lead in a fast-paced global environment. This leadership “agility”—the ability to focus on core operational factors, while at the same time integrating information from the innovative edge—was identified in research with 100 leaders by Lee Hecht Harrison. It determined that agility was a new capability leaders needed to deal with the many paradoxical situations that they face. The ability to move back and forth ensures that the insight from the edge of the organization has the greatest impact on core productivity.
In a time when organizations seek to engage employees, these newer interactive platforms provide opportunities for turning data into action. The previous ways of getting information (surveys, etc.) ask employees and customers for information, leading them to simply provide data. This creates a passive process where people offer up small tokens of their insight, and the managers assume they have nothing more to say.
The reason most firms conduct employee surveys infrequently—once a year or less—isn’t because they don’t need employee data. It’s because the traditional survey process generates too much unactionable data that is often ambiguous, painful and costly. It also sets expectations for action and change that cannot be delivered because the scope is focused on broad organizational issues instead of local work-group changes. It is better not to ask people’s opinions than to do nothing with the feedback they provide.
Enterprise-Wide Communication: A Win-Win
For most companies, speeches, e-mail and phone calls are the only sources of two-way enterprise-wide communication. Having a way to collect, measure and communicate many people’s responses into a single source builds loyalty and lays the foundation of organizational agility. People feel that they have been heard and that their perspectives matter.
When leaders have the ability to quickly ask questions, receive answers and respond from what they hear, the risk of surprises is minimized. This provides a platform for continuous strategic realignment and continuous change and improvement. Using a bottom-up approach can quickly confirm or disconfirm new business direction, supplementing strategic planning and execution.
This interactive stance is rooted in many models of individual health. Biofeedback allows people to more adeptly regulate blood pressure and temperature. CAT scans allow us to see inside bodies and gather information that can be used to prevent serious consequences of disease. Organizational feedback allows leaders to use rapid feedback methods to more closely monitor and make adjustments in action and strategy to ensure the energy, engagement and confidence of their organizations.
Creating Interactive Leadership
There are several key steps to creating a culture of interactive leadership:
- Choosing metrics: It is important that the measurements be tied to business performance. The strongest metrics are not just correlated, but predictive. Questions that have been validated against business indicators (i.e., stock price, managerial performance, 360-degree ratings) provide the strongest foundation. In addition, asking open-ended questions about areas crucial to strategy, implementation, transformation, etc., provides a source of fresh reflection for the manager.
- Collecting data: Many surveys have so many questions that people do not answer them all or do answer, but in a cursory way. Having a few predictive questions with opportunity for open-ended comments allows for continual customization and overcomes survey fatigue. It also fosters a respect for the value of the employee’s time. Online administration by a third party ensures confidentiality and builds trust.
- Rapidity of feedback: Waiting for results reduces interest. When the data is returned rapidly (within 24 hours) to both the manager and the employee, it sets up an opportunity for getting together to talk about what the results mean. This is a unique opportunity for the manager to have “sense-making sessions” to draw out the insights that can translate into action and decisions about things that can improve group performance. Online administration provides the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to deepen the understanding of key issues that emerge early in the data collection.
- Accountability for action: With the manager and employee both receiving the feedback (in grouped form), a joint expectation for accountability is created. When issues emerge, there is an opportunity to respond and take action quickly. It breaks through the mystery of trying to guess what people mean. The data provides a catalyst for more open discussions.
- Capturing and sharing learning: Using an enterprise data management system provides a platform for deriving insight from patterns—trends that can be used at the enterprise level for strategic decision-making.
The CLO can step into the role of managing a strategic metrics strategy, using the data to build a development curriculum. Asking questions creates an environment of organizational learning. Using open-ended comment data draws out the voice of the customer or employee. Previously, this could be an overwhelming experience, with page after page of sometimes upsetting remarks. The anonymity of open-ended questions often encouraged people to blast the organization because there was no accountability for action—because the insight was fed back as group data—allowing an “it’s not my problem” attitude to develop.
“The technological ability to immediately code open-ended comments (done via eePulse’s technology) and assure that the comments are open and honest because we have a third party collecting the data, makes it possible to identify key concerns immediately and then act upon real-time data,” said Jay Wilbur, executive director of UAW-GM Center for Human Resources. The convincing data—in the voice of the employee and provided to management immediately—sets the stage for managers to address key issues through further questioning for understanding or direct action.
Returning this data directly to the manager, who has the accountability and authority to do something about it, increases respect and trust in the local work group. Issues that require strategic attention are raised to the senior leadership level for action.
Interactive Data: A New Leadership Tool
Managers have a fresh new source of information that gives them feedback on things they can do something about, more actionable than point-in-time survey data. They can use the recurring real-time data to assess the impact of their actions. The comments come directly from employees about current business issues that are actionable, providing immediate ROI on improvements.
When fresh data is used to start a conversation, the people remember more easily why they responded the way they did. The manager can then ask more questions to quickly understand the original issues. This builds an environment of trust and learning, where employees are willing to give more of their insight and truth. This then sets up a cycle where managers and leaders can respond to the concerns and make adjustments, setting up a cycle of interactive innovation and shared accountability.
An enterprise-wide data collection and dialogue initiative gives the CLO a method of providing the senior leadership team with rapid insight into key strategic questions. When used as a continuous leadership tool, it can provide guidance on merger integration, cultural transformation and leadership confidence.
It also provides a business justification for increasing the skills and capability of managers to facilitate sense-making sessions to understand how to focus issues, respond to concerns and provide leadership directions to resolve issues that are blocking performance. The faster managers find out what is affecting performance and take action, the faster the results can be noticed.
These interactive tools often lead to a demand from leaders and managers to develop the ability to receive disquieting feedback, overcome their initial defensive reactions and respond from an appreciative, inquiring mode. Expanding coaching and interactive skill-building helps managers and leaders grow their capability to lead data-driven conversations for action.
CLOs have an important role in setting up the enterprise-wide technology and conversational skills so leaders and managers can become more interactive catalysts of change. Data-driven dialogue provides a candid platform to address issues that may have remained submerged, dragging productivity down.
Cynthia Scott, Ph.D. is senior vice president, product development for Lee Hecht Harrison Leadership Consulting. Andrea Huff is executive vice president and managing director of Lee Hecht Harrison Leadership Consulting. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.