What is employee engagement & how can we measure it?

Last week someone sent me on a New York Times article referencing a controversial piece of research from Leadership IQ which claimed that “low performers are more engaged than high performers”. Now since this statement is rather counter-intuitive, at least for my definition of what it means to be engaged and a high performer, I wanted to investigate further. I had a bit of a mooch around the Internet and was really suprised at the number of articles positively referencing this research and thus questioning the business value of raising employee engagement levels. I then decided to take a closer look at the study itself and check out some of the critical analysis from across the Internet, including a particularly good critique from Jim Harter, Gallup Chief Scientist for Workplace and Wellbeing (No, Low Performers Are Not More Engaged Than High Performers).

In looking deeper at the breadth of discussion on this topic it became clear that there is no concensus on the definition of employee engagement which makes measuring it rather subjective. The subjectivity is further exacerbated by the fact that engagement measurements are generally done through surveys which are themselves inherently subjective. To make things worse, it’s impossible to directly ask someone if they are “engaged” so lots of other questions have to be asked in order to infer engagement, and frequently these questions end up giving you something that looks more like an employee happiness measurement.

I doubt that anyone would really argue that being mentally “engaged” with something, be that a project, job, marriage, customer, or whatever, has a positive impact on your personal performance as it relates to that something. So measuring engagement is a reasonable thing to want to do, however only if you are measuring “engagement that matters”. So this got me thinking that maybe our problem is the abstract definition of engagement, if we had something more specific then we would have a more objective approach to measuring it.

I suspect that the current definitions of engagement are constrained by nothing more than the fact that historically the only way we had of measuring engagement was through surveys (and you can’t create a bazillion surveys with a gazillion questions). However in this bright new world, where increasingly more and more employee actions and interactions are captured in electronic systems and available for measurement, we don’t need to. There is no reason why we cannot measure engagement at a much more granular and applied level, tailoring measurements specifically for the types of jobs. For example; it may be really important in a customer facing role that the employee love the company, however in a back-office role it may be more important that they love their job. In an ideal world they would love both, but what can ya do!

Enter Workforce Analytics …

All this ambiguity around the definition, and subsequently measurement of, engagement is a wee bit of a problem for data scientists who want to build analytics models to programmatically tackle this challenge. Data scientists need absolutes and don’t do well with ambiguities. It’s hard to build an analytics model if you don’t know exactly what it is you are trying to model.

This is the problem we need to address with workforce analytics. We need to be more precise about modelling engagement and subsequently measuring it by analyzing all the digital breadcrumbs that people leave across electronic systems; social (create, share, comment, recommend, tag, like), communications (phone calls, meetings, e-mails), project mgmt (projects, activities, events, travel, engagements), and so on.

Now I’m not suggesting that surveys are not a valuable tool to use when measuring engagement, but on their own I believe they are completely inadequate. It’s a case of “Don’t tell me how you feel, show me what you do” :) In fact, I would even hypothesize that they may be way more useful as a very fine scalpel that should only be used AFTER the initial analysis has been completed. In this way you could dynamically construct micro-surveys very focused on a particular question. For example; the workforce analytics suggests that a group of sales folks are highly engaged with customers but are negatively engaged with their colleagues in sales support, whereas another group is highly engaged with the sales support team. Maybe this warrants a targeted survey on these two groups of people in order to find out why there are such engagement differences.

So to wrap up… Engagement is an area that is crying out for some focused workforce analytics and until such time we move from the subjective to the objective we will never end up with accurate recommendations for how we can improve organizational performance through engagement.

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8 Comments to “What is employee engagement & how can we measure it?”

  1. Great post. Spot on. To me, engagement is like “food.” Sure, everyone wants food, but the definition can be very different for each person. Why do you want food? (Stay alive) What are you trying to do? (Be healthy / Celebrate). What you want to accomplish with food is more important than just eating food.

    It is the same with engagement. What business goals are you trying to accomplish? Then dive down into what types of engagements you do and don’t want. Some types of engagement are needed, some are not. Then measure…

    (Then, while writing this, I saw this…http://www.1to1media.com/view.aspx?docid=34343)

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    • Thanks Kevin, and I love the food analogy :-)

      I definitely agree with the point (from the link you shared) that mobile drives engagement. On a personal level I know my own interaction levels (at least across social tools) went through the roof once I got my first smart phone.

      The other really great thing about mobile — at least for us data scientists who are boringly fascinated with data :-) — is that it leaves an increasingly relevant set of digital footprints that feed the analytics process. Relevant both in terms of the quantity of data (filing gaps to ensure a more accurate and complete analysis) and the quality of the data (providing a real-time activity context that you just don’t get with a desktop computer). This (for the first time) allows us to provide intelligent applications with a much richer understanding of the people who drive them!

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  2. Marie, a very interesting post and something that we at Whodini are working to address. Whodini enables organizations to mine the data resident in their business communications to optimize their workforce. Our technology automatically parses through written emails, calendars and other social networking communications to provide evidenced-based data on business engagement within an enterprise. These analytics provide valuable insight that business leaders can use to more effectively inform critical business decisions, increase productivity and help solve workforce management issues. Our focus is on delivering these workforce analytics as a service through API’s to enable developers of all shapes and sizes to incorporate them into existing business workflows and processes.

    I’d welcome the chance to tell you more.

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  3. Interesting post, and from the data point of view it’s necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. Taking the food analogy, do I get a lot of visits (and repeat visits) to my restaurant because it’s the only one in town? Is food consumption high because it’s good or I’m just located at the end of a walking trail? Do I get infrequent or no repeat visits because it’s ElBulli and reservations are lottery based? As Kevin says, it’s all about working out what engagement is needed, what is relevant, what can be measured, and also what can be inferred from the data.

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    • I would definitely agree that its critical to map behaviors to actual business outcome and this is always the tricky part. My approach to this has been to focus on capturing business interactions directly from inside business applications and integrating into the business network (changing it from purely social to more biz centric). This allows us to start correlating patterns of behaviors to business outcome and gets us closer to this goal.

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  4. I think its time to revisit Maslow. To my mind engaged means emotionally attached to a purpose. Activity levels are perhaps a proxy for how engaged an individual might be. But what if they are shy?

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    • If we consider Activity from a purely social perspective, then I totally agree some folks just don’t like social, period. However, if we shift the definition of Activity away from a pure social semantic to the activity of engaging with people to do work; I call a customer, email a colleague, co-create a proposal, read someone’s article, ask someone a question, … then Activity becomes something that can now start to really measure engagement levels, particularly when we characterize different types of interaction. The other observation is that sometimes base levels aren’t as interesting as delta levels; behavioral changes that may indicate a positive or negative change of state. This real time analysis is a new and exciting area, however we’ve got lots that we will have to learn on the way and I’ve no doubt we’ll make loads of mistakes :)

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