By Gloria Lombardi

It is very easy to jump on something and say that this is the answer for everything.

Susan Walker (pictured right) is one of the UK’s leading experts in employee communications research. Her journey in the measurement field started in 1995 when she became the Head of the Human Resource Research practice at MORI.

Walker is also the author of Employee Engagement and Communication Research: Measurement, Strategy and Action‘. She is currently on the IABC UK chapter board as VP of professional development, and working on a series of webinars around measuring engagement and internal communications that will be run by the association during the summer.

I wanted to talk with her to explore the differences between the past and the present in measurement. In this interview Walker shares her top tips in conducting meaningful employee research, which ultimately impacts on effective communications.

Gloria Lombardi: Susan, I would like for a moment to look at the past of measurement practice. Based on your extensive research and vast experience, what are the most remarkable changes in this space since the 90s?

Susan Walker: When I started to head the Human Resource Research practice at MORI in 1995, employee research was called ‘satisfaction’ research – it tended to be a major annual or two-year programme covering a variety of subjects that ultimately ended up at tracking employee satisfaction.

Over the course of the years, however, there has been a big shift. Today, satisfaction is no longer what we are looking at. You can have an employee saying ‘I am well paid; I have no troubles with my colleagues; I am not pushed here and feel comfortable with that. I am satisfied.’ But, that this is not enough.

We now talk about measuring ’employee engagement’ as well as communications and change effectiveness – much more business focused and proactive than just being “satisfied.”

Another big difference are the possibilities brought by new technology. Social media platforms and analytics, the online environment per se, is making the process much faster and effective.

GL: Some people argue that employee engagement has not been clearly defined as a concept. Hence, measuring it effectively can be a challenge – there is no evidence that employee engagement can be reliably measured.

SW: Not necessarily. There is a great deal of evidence that employee engagement can be measured. It is said that however you define it, you know what it is. So it is possible to see whether or not people are truly engaged with their organisation – but it does take some consideration and analysis.

In terms of measuring it, I think you can. Consider how engagement might show itself in the way people behave: how they give good customer service, feel involved, see how they contribute to the business, motivated to come up with ideas and suggestions and go the proverbial extra mile.

GL: In terms of methodology, you claim that there is not the best methodology but the right one. Could you explain that?

SW: There are two main ways to tackling measurement. The quantitative – you gather statistical information to look at trends, benchmark, provide line manager feedback, attitudinal analysis and research models. Then, there is the qualitative methodology such as focus groups and depth interviews which gives insights and opportunity to probe views. The latter is just as important as the former – when it comes to measurement we should not think only about figures.

Indeed, you are going to get different insights from each of those. For example, if you want to go deeper into understanding an issue, if you are going to be able to probe what people say, if you are going to ask them to suggest potential solutions, then you would probably go down the route of qualitative – you will not have numbers but a better understanding of what lies behind opinions and attitudes.

In terms of getting information, one major change has been the use of online survey tools. However, we must also not forget that in some organisations not everyone has access to a computer. Think of the factory floor workers – in those circumstances there is still a place for a paper-based questionnaire.

GL: In your view, what are the key challenges in measuring internal communications? If any, how can they be overcome?

SW: Interestingly, some recent research says that 60% of communicators are not measuring their communications. That is a bit of a puzzle to me. Measurement is a fantastic tool that communicators have to help with their work and to show the value of it.

Yet, some practitioners are nervous about it. They should be more assertive, open and not wait for the senior managers to say ‘What’s the point of those communications?’ They should be on the front font, showing that they have been able to assess those communications and their link to the business.

Often communicators are creative people. Generally speaking they are right brain and not comfortable with numbers. I was not when I was a Communications Manager. But after joining MORI and getting into the research side of the industry, I began to see that it is about telling the story in just the same way as many other aspects of organisational storytelling. You are maybe dealing with figures, but as a communicator, you should be able to tell the story out of those statistics.

GL: Let’s look at the reasons why measurement fails.

SW: Often people pay a lot of attention to measurement, but not at the equally important part of what to do about it. Practitioners need to realise that measurement is just the first stage – the second one is to develop and implement action to benefit the business.

So another main reason that measurement can fail is that the approach and coverage is not aligned to the business needs.

GL: So, presumably, organisations that are doing good measurement are using the tool that way.

SW: Yes. They align measurement to the business’s goals and act on the results. Also, they find specific examples to prove the Return On Investment (ROI) from their activities. To say ‘we have just produced a fantastic video and the company profits have gone up” is just not possible.

But, they could say, ‘we launched a customer campaign. We communicated it well. People understood how they could contribute. The number of customers’ complaints has reduced X%. Ultimately, we have saved x amount of money.”

Successful organisations find something specific to measure. In contrast, the companies that don’t pay attention to those specifics will not find measurement to be useful, as they don’t get the right type of information out of it.

Measurement that fails is measurement that has not been thought-through properly – there is not forward thinking put into it.

GL: Why doesn’t action follow up? Where is the blockage?

SW: Once, I was approached by somebody who said: ‘I want to do some research into the House Journal to show how well read it is and how useful it is.’ And I replied: ‘But, we cannot know that in advance.’ And, she said back to me: ‘Well, in that case I don’t want to do the research.’

Research must not be looking at the negatives, but looking for solutions. Yet, one has to bite on the bullet. If the organisation has produced something and the results show that it is not useful to employees and perhaps it should be stopped, then communicators need to say that. They need to put their hand up and say: “This is not working. Let’s use another tool.”

They should not fear it. That for me is ammunition for internal communicators – they can show the difference they can make to the business.

GL: Many companies are still relying on the annual survey. Is there still a place for it?

By the time the organisation gets the results – a year later – probably many things have changed. So, how can a business get effective results if they act on data that is not current? How can they make meaningful decisions?

SW: The traditional once-every-year survey is indeed irrelevant nowadays. The book that I wrote begins with the sentence ‘The annual employee survey is dead.’ But if I thought that about employee research I would not have written the book!

There is still a place for a major survey, but it has to be more flexible and quicker in terms of getting feedback. Technology lets you do that. You can create a video campaign and have the feedback in real-time. And, this is only going to improve – surveys will be a lot faster, more flexible and much more focused in the future.

GL: Give me your top pieces of advice for internal communicators. How can they make the most of measurement?

SW: Firstly, think about what you want to know. There is no point in asking questions that you cannot respond to. For example, there is no point in asking people ‘Should the CEO blog?’ if you know perfectly well that he or she is not the sort of person who is going to do it.

Think carefully about what you want to get out of measurement. Link it to the organisation – Where can communication contribute something to the company’s success?

Secondly, before doing any research familiarise with the data that is already available across the organisation. For example, HR may hold valuable information around turn over, absenteeism and sickness, which show that some areas are better than others. Look around the business, become more assertive and talk with your colleagues. It is like being a sort of detective pulling all the information together so that you have the whole picture.

Finally, understand what measurement can and cannot give you. All the new technologies such as analytics are a great opportunity for communicators – the more tools you have in the toolbox the better. But, as long as you realise what each can do and the fact that you cannot depend on just the latest piece of technology. It is very easy to jump on something and say that this is the answer for everything. You need to remain open minded, flexible and above all really understand your organisation so you can produce measurement that truly contributes to the business.