Employee surveys and organisational reviews have come a long way since the 1950's when consultants cruised the corridors with clipboards.
The science of employee diagnostics has evolved considerably in the last decade, from traditional "satisfaction" surveys, to the measurement of "culture", "climate" and "engagement".
The past few years have heralded the arrival of a new breed of employee surveys, which measures something far more dear to the hearts of CEOs worldwide - the extent to which people are helping their employer toward the achievement of strategy.
The earliest form of employee diagnostic, "satisfaction" survey first made their appearance in 1970's. They remain a favourite among organisations looking to measure commitment as an indicator of productivity and employee retention. Unfortunately, while these surveys are able to pinpoint the so-called "happiness quotient" of staff, their key shortcoming is that employee happiness and organisation performance is imperfectly linked. In fact, there have been many instances of organisations sinking while their people danced on the decks.
Who uses satisfaction surveys? Operationally focused HR professionals and line managers.
Who is measured? Often all employees or divisions that are perceived to be "at risk".
When should employee surveys be used? Annually or at times when management is concerned about high staff turnover.
One of the precursors to the strategic alignment survey is the "culture" or "climate" survey which examines whether or not employees are going about things in the right way. They provide an insight into whether organisations are exposed to undue risks from rogue operators or wild variations in customer service standards.
While culture surveys represent a quantum leap from satisfaction surveys, many organisations have failed to see productive benefits materialise from the outcomes. The simple explanation is that employees are often going about the wrong things in the right ways.
Who uses culture surveys? HR Managers generally use these surveys to measure the success of "values" programs.
Who is measured? Surveys are generally completed by all staff. Top class culture surveys are tailored to the organisation's chosen values, which unfortunately makes it impossible to create global or industry benchmarks.
When should they be used? Rather than using them on an annual basis, many organisations only perform a culture survey before and after a values project. The lack of continuous benchmarking can obscure important changes in culture.
Up until 2002, despite enormous investment in setting strategies-organisations had been at a loss to explain the gap between their predictions and actual performance. Market forces alone failed to account for the deficit. It was clear to CEOs that their engines weren't firing on all cylinders, but that they had no way of diagnosing the problem.
The emergence of organisation alignment surveys has changed all that. It highlights that to successfully deliver on strategy; organisations must be "aligned". Employees must know the strategy and understand their part in it. Even if these two conditions are met, supporting functions such as IT, HR, Marketing, planning and reporting can still get in the way of employees' best intentions.
Organisation alignment surveys elevate employee surveys from being an HR tool to a vital strategic instrument for top management. It establishes whether employees are rowing in the same direction, whether they know where the boat is going, and whether the boat needs some running repairs. In addition to highlighting the "disconnect" between organisation strategy and everyday activities, an organisation alignment survey is also capable of pinpointing the comparative strengths of different areas of a business, enabling these to leveraged elsewhere in an organisation.
Who uses organisation alignment surveys? CEOs, senior management and HR Professionals wanting a seat at the strategic table.
Who is measured? Everyone in the organisation.
How often should it be used? Typically organisations use alignment surveys as part of their annual strategic planning cycle, at the start of a major strategic initiative, or when a new CEO is appointed (thereby providing an invaluable "stake in the ground" to measure progress over time).
Why do alignment surveys succeed where other surveys fail? As actions arising from an alignment survey match the overall strategy of an organisation, they tend to be far more meaningful and sustainable than previous efforts. Furthermore, their success can be measured in future years by repeating the survey process. In this way, linkages between strategy, improvement initiatives and performance can be established, which cements the position of HR at the strategic level.
Does an alignment survey still cover satisfaction and culture? Yes. Commitment follows alignment just like the happiness of a successful rowing crew with a good boat. This means that alignment is a predictor of satisfaction, allowing organisations to shape their own future. Culture is a vital component of alignment, but for the reasons described above, it fails to take into account the organisation's overall goals. Culture is therefore a means but not an end.