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Surveying the HR Landscape

April 1, 2000
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Related Topics: Intranets/Extranets, Featured Article
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One of the great contradictions of our time is that in the Age of Information, many companies still don't have a clue how their workforce thinks and feels. HR directors -- and CEOs for that matter -- muddle through an endless array of choices based only on a partial understanding of how a given decision, directive or program affects the mentality and productivity of workers. The 1997 UPS strike and last February's American Airlines pilots' walkout are perfect examples of a disconnect between management and the workforce.

Of course, most outcomes aren't so traumatic, but without soliciting feedback from employees, ongoing problems can chip away at productivity and profits. All too often, corporate programs and HR initiatives -- ranging from strategic alliances to a new benefits package -- begin with trumpets blaring. Then, weeks or months later, they fade quietly into oblivion. Executives tick off a number of reasons for the failure. But, in the end, it almost always boils down to the human element. If workers don't understand or accept a new program, even the best execution won't produce positive results.

That might not seem like rocket science, but filling the gap between corporate expectations and reality might make you feel as though you need a booster engine. Though companies, and particularly human resources departments, have used employee feedback and surveys for years to design and refine programs, the capabilities now exist to build surveying into a powerful enterprise tool -- one that can help craft policy and programs on the fly, and deal with the fast-changing business conditions of today.

Now may be the time to renovate your survey process.
Consider the HR department at MindSpring Enterprises Inc., an Atlanta-based Internet service provider. The 1,900-employee company used to conduct surveys manually by tabulating responses and importing them into a spreadsheet -- a costly and time consuming process, says Cindy Buell, director of leadership and organization development.

Earlier this year, the HR department began using Saja Software's Survey Select software to gain feedback about core values. After drafting the questions, the software converted the survey into HTML. Buell sent it to the Webmaster, who placed it on the firm's intranet. Five weeks later, corporate executives were discussing results -- and showing off PowerPoint® presentations with elaborate charts to employees at nine locations around the country. "The software has renovated the entire survey process. It has allowed us to do the job faster, cheaper and better," Buell explains. Team-effectiveness surveys and 360-degree evaluations are now in the works, she adds.

Indeed, the power of the PC combined with corporate networks, including intranets, is forever changing the face of surveying. A Web site can now become a research and analysis tool that allows management to put its pulse firmly on workers' thoughts, ideas and feelings. Specialized survey software along with e-mail or floppy disks can help HR conduct 360-degree assessments, design more effective compensation packages and quickly understand what workers want in retirement benefits, training and more. In fact, by tracking answers over time, it's possible to measure organizational change.

Surveying tools from companies like Scantron Technologies, Training Technologies Inc., Saja Software and others can automate the entire process. Instead of generating paper, mailing it out and waiting for responses to trickle in -- only to have someone in HR manually tabulate results -- it's possible to use pre-loaded templates for survey design, and automated tools for administration and analysis. Instead of spending weeks to gather information that's nearly obsolete by the time anyone can act on the results, it's realistic to design a simple survey in the morning and take action the same afternoon.

There's a right and wrong way to conduct an e-survey.
However, navigating this new electronic frontier is no simple matter. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that every technological opportunity can easily become a black hole of money and time.

Instead of mining for answers, an HR department can find itself setting off organizational landmines -- as people become confused and systems bog down with inefficiency. In fact, even the best and most highly automated survey tools can't solve the fundamental challenge of asking the right questions and finding the right answers. That requires knowledgeable people who must design systems and structures that make survey solutions work.

It's also wise to understand a few realities about the new media. Effective surveying is more than the sum of technological capabilities. Just because you can send out a survey with a few clicks of a mouse doesn't mean you should. Just because you post a survey on your intranet doesn't mean you're going to get the desired number of responses. Achieving maximum results means recognizing the nuances of the survey medium -- Web, e-mail, floppy disk and more -- and tailoring the entire process appropriately.

For example, if you opt to send out an e-mail questionnaire, your odds for success will likely increase if you keep surveys relatively short -- usually no more than 25 questions -- and create a meaningful subject line. It's also essential to recognize that e-mail is not confidential, and only those with e-mail addresses can participate. The latter fact can skew results by limiting representation or polling an invalid sampling.

On the other hand, a Web-based survey isn't a license for prodding and poking into every aspect of a person's work life. Every time you place a survey on the intranet, you're competing with reams of other data and information. You might know that the subject of the survey is important, but a worker is likely to tune the survey out if he or she feels inundated by questions. As a result, it's crucial to market it, advertise it and promote it -- with catchy headlines and graphics. It's also a good idea to provide incentives to participate, whether it's a raffle for an extra vacation day or a pair of tickets to a performance.

Finally, it's essential to provide employees with results, whenever possible. At MindSpring, an executive discusses results with groups of employees at their offices. Other companies let employees view a live summary of results from their browser once they've voted. Every time they click to the page where they voted, they can view updated results.

All this can make the entire process fun, interactive and interesting. "It can transform surveying from a rigid event into an ongoing method of communication," says Marcie Levine, president of Saja Software in Longmont, Colorado. But it doesn't have to stop there. By routing the appropriate data to the appropriate people in the organization -- essentially creating different views of the same data -- it's possible to fully leverage the power of information. That can allow different departments, even different teams, to compare and contrast performance and results.

Of course, electronic surveys don't work for every organization in every situation. Some firms simply have too many people in different locations -- with too few of them using PCs. In such instances, paper and snail mail might remain the best solutions. But, more often than not, e-surveys offer tremendous advantages. They can cut costs by as much as 70 percent over traditional methods. They also can speed the surveying process and allow management to understand data far more effectively.

When it comes to reaching across an organization and surveying the landscape, the answer increasingly lies in the questions.

Workforce, August 1999, Vol. 78, No. 8, pp. 100-101.

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