The Conscious Corporation: Using Organization Surveys Differently

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Business Relationship Manager - Product Lifecycle Management, Chevron Corporation

There is a new approach to surveying employees that can create the constant and comprehensive feedback an organization needs. Traditionally employee surveys have been large enough that they were done infrequently. They were often part of a major assessment that was comprehensive and cumbersome. No wonder that employees traditionally complain that nothing ever comes of their inputs. In contrast, imagine a survey that is (a) 1-2 minutes long (perhaps 5-12 questions) (b) sent out to targeted samples within the organization (c) once a month or more. Every month (d) the topics change based on the issues identified in the previous month’s survey. Every now and then (e) a few key questions are repeated so we have a sense for more subtle trends over time. For example, we might ask Project Managers about whether the defined project management process actually facilitates their work, whether their project team members are overloaded or able to deliver on their commitments, whether they have enough access to senior sponsors. We could query project team members on whether their project supports their personal career goals, whether project meetings are addressing the key obstacles, or whether they get the cooperation they need from other team members. Rather than relying on anecdotal and, therefore, highly suspect data, we would have a comprehensive picture of how well project management is operating in the company.

Where does the new approach for feedback and input fit in organizations, and why do we need it now? The last few decades have seen the demise of the machine model of organizations. We have slowly realized that thinking of companies as purposive, constructed, linear and rational only blinds us to the real nature of the beast. And ‘beast’ is the key word. We have come to realize that organizations are more like organic entities (organisms, ecologies, environments) than machines. Companies are not just factories turning inputs into saleable products; they are also communities and sources of personal meaning and definition. And so we have started to embrace networking, distributed decision-making, peer review, internal wikis, and other mechanisms that all attempt to enhance or just make more visible these more naturalistic modes of communication, control, and action.

The machine metaphor, of course, will always have its value. It has fallen from its pre-eminence in our thinking, but it has not died completely. Work process automation or enterprise-wide database design, for example, both call for a deliberate and rational process of conscious design in support of a stated purpose. But the way we go about those tasks will be forever changed by the recognition of the value of inclusion, diversity, meaning and values.

Looking at companies through the organic lens is starting to highlight some of our executive and managerial blind spots. If we look at companies in this new way, what’s missing in our picture? It is easy to equate departments, work groups, and even processes to organs, to organized functionality that interacts much more densely within than without. So our new organic company clearly has its components “parts”. What is missing, however, is a comprehensive and ever present feedback mechanism, in short, a nervous system. We certainly have a rich set of neurons emanating from the seats of power (brain), but we have little in the way of neural feedback from the extremities. Executives command the company to “run faster”, but the foot has no effective way to say “we’ve got a broken toe”. The standard complement of reports and metrics are overwhelmingly defined within the machine model. How well do we track morale? Loyalty? Optimism? Executive credibility? Quality of interaction? Respect and support? Resilience? How well do we measure the quality of the culture? These are the issues in the organic model, and they have a clear link to productivity and profit.

Let’s get back to specific examples of frequent employee input. For instance, after the formal employee review cycle, we could ask employees whether they felt their manager had a balanced picture of their performance, whether they felt acknowledged and appreciated by the whole process, or whether their relationship with their manager was improved as a result of the process. We could even ask if they (the employee) have changed their behavior or their priorities as a result of the conversation with their manager. They may have signed the form (machine), but did they actually take it to heart (organic)?

And always we would close the survey with a request for the topics to include in the next round, so employees would have a voice in what the company looks at more closely. It would be more like a conversation (organic) than a one-time x-ray (machine-like) of employee opinion.

Most important, the frequency of the data (weekly to monthly rather than quarterly to yearly) means it can be part of normal management discussions. Too many survey projects provoke single efforts that quickly dissipate in the flow of daily business, except for the damage done to executive credibility from doing nothing.

Giving back the data each month to the whole company is another feature of this strategy. The goal is not just to inform key decision-making (machine), but more to spark discussions (organic) among the entire employee community. Getting staff to talk about and address their own concerns is how companies heal (organic) themselves.

A short example might help clarify the strategy.

The staff of a medium-sized organization was facing the daunting task of planning for a major expansion in facilities, programs, and staff. They were going to jump from a working group of 15 to a complex organization of over 200 in two years. They were moving from a collection of temporary buildings to a huge campus of numerous buildings and multiple uses.

In the first staff survey we asked whether they were optimistic about the planned expansion, whether they had the information they needed to make critical decisions and whether senior leadership was candid in clarifying internal issues associated with the rapid growth. The most prominent finding was the felt lack of critical information. So the next month’s survey asked about the quality of decision-making in the company and what information they lacked to make better decisions. We also asked if the change was being managed in a way that maintained good staff morale. Their responses made it clear that decision-making was weak and that the information they needed the most was about their appropriate areas of responsibility in quickly shifting program areas. The data also suggested that morale was steadily deteriorating, a dangerous condition given the additional stresses that were ahead. So the third survey focused on the obstacles to sustaining strong staff morale. The results suggested that the new hires were creating large gaps in the normally cordial and close relationships among the staff. It seems that ambiguity and uncertainty were workable as long as there were strong feelings of trust and mutual respect. In the absence of those organic bonds, the staff were feeling the friction of new demands, new tasks, new program areas, and new working environments. And all of those factors were likely to increase dramatically within the next 12 months.

The survey process not only gave senior staff an early warning of potentially serious problems, they also encouraged the staff to start more open conversations about the issues. The data feedback encouraged those with concerns to speak out; they learned that others felt the same and the reports made the topics legitimate.

Other possible applications of this strategy are easy to find.

  • If you are shepherding the installation of a large, company-wide software system, how useful would it be to have weekly feedback on the availability and quality of training, on the perceived value of the new system, or on how well obstacles were being identified and resolved. And what if we could tap into how the new work processes were impacting staff’s definition of themselves or their work satisfaction?
  • If you are running a significant process improvement effort, you may be working with the key participants in the process, but wouldn’t it be helpful to have comprehensive feedback from the larger “customer base” of the process? You could find out their view of the design process, whether they felt their concerns were being included, or how well the work products meet their needs. While there are standard tools for soliciting input on requirements (machine), this strategy can tap into the subjective sense of being included and respected (organic).

The overall purpose is to create targeted feedback. The process itself is sensitive to emerging issues among those surveyed. The high frequency supports use of data in everyday decision-making. In short, it is creating a rudimentary consciousness.

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