Employee surveys can help HR managers identify skills gaps, establish important performance benchmarks and gauge workforce morale. In fact, with data storage costs down, and a wide array of survey software vendors to choose from, never before has it been so easy for companies to riddle their workers with questions. But not everyone is convinced that HR professionals are putting the data they’re collecting from these lengthy questionnaires to good use.
“People in workplaces are being over-surveyed and under-analyzed,” warns Laurie Bassi, CEO of McBassi & Company, an HR analytics consultancy. By conducting surveys month after month without a clear HR analytics strategy, Bassi says HR departments are missing a prime opportunity to convert everyday engagement surveys into a treasure trove of actionable business intelligence.
Bassi says the first mistake companies make is designing surveys that fail to ask the right questions. For example, many surveys focus on traditional measurements of employee engagement such as the vaguely defined term “employee satisfaction.”
“The HR community has come to equate engagement with business results and that really is a myth,” says Bassi. “If the purpose of an employee survey is to understand the human drivers behind your business results, you have to go beyond traditional HR notions of engagement. Yes, you need engaged people but if that’s all you’re measuring, it’s not enough.”
For this reason, Bassi says that surveys that solicit an employee’s perspective on specific issues such as a company’s culture, business processes and work environment are far more likely to glean data that can improve a company’s bottom line.
Another obstacle standing in the way of deriving real value from HR survey data: the sheer amount of data being collected. Online survey software provider SurveyMonkey noted in a February 2013 blog posting that it created about 25 terabytes of data over the past year, or about 70 gigabytes daily, on behalf of its customers.
Although it’s the job of survey software vendors like SurveyMonkey to produce reams of data for their clients, HR departments all too often wind up with data dumps that lack any real intrinsic value.
Failure to link data analysis with clear business goals can also stand in the way of maximizing the value of survey data. In fact, a recent report from SHL, a U.K.-based talent measurement company, reveals that less than half of respondents say their organizations use talent data to drive business decisions.
When HR executives do get their hands on useful data, it’s important to analyze the insights through a strategic lens. Bassi points to a recent survey a client was conducting on sales productivity that asked employees to score the statement, “I have sufficient time at work to take the training I need.” While the question ranked as the survey’s lowest scoring item, Bassi says that any effort on the part of HR to reverse this number “would actually have been a disservice to the firm.”
“You actually don’t want your sales force to say, ‘I have plenty of time for training,’” says Bassi. “You want your sales force out there hustling, not sitting at their desk, leisurely in training.” Without linking survey data and analysis with business outcomes and objectives, Bassi says HR not only acts counterproductive to the goals of the company but risks “diminishing its credibility in the organization.”
Establishing meaningful connections between data analysis and business outcomes are of little significance, however, if an HR manager is ill-equipped to present a survey’s key findings. “HR needs to take all of this amazing analysis and present it very simply,” says Bassi, adding that business leaders will always prefer a one-page handout to a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation on HR survey data. The secret, says Bassi: “Combine powerful analytics with storytelling that moves people and makes things real and tangible to people.”
Cindy Waxer, a contributing editor who covers workforce analytics and other topics for Data Informed, is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a contributor to publications including The Economist and MIT Technology Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Cwaxer.