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Nailing the evidence for employee engagement is like nailing jelly to the wall

jelly

ICE cream and jelly, a punch in the belly

KPMG have thrown a punch in the belly of the McEngagement movement – the annual employee engagement survey – exposing employee engagement as the one of the biggest “rackets” in the HR industry since the annual appraisal process.

This punch must come as a blow for the Engage for Success (E4S) Task Force who thought they had ‘nailed’ the evidence for employee engagement, only to find their efforts have been more like nailing jelly to the wall.

Robert Bolton, lead HR partner at KPMG,  a former protagonist of the pseudo science of employee engagement has changed his employer’s party line. Bolton now believes that HR are at a crossroads and heading for a revolution in a new era of evidence-based people management.

It is true to say that the E4S evidence base has been dodgey to say the least. But  what did they expect when they cannot even agree the definition of the very thing they are tasked with? This lack of definition has probably contributed to Bolton’s view that the term engagement is a misunderstood minefield that is widely abused.

Making some random assertion that UK productivity is down due to engagement scores being low just doesn’t stack up.  Engagement scores have always been low and always will be low in the UK. And there is no evidence to suggest that the G7 nations who outperform the UK in productivity have higher engagement scores. The fact is that engagement scores are even lower in the highest performing nations. The UK has never invested so much time and effort on “engagement initiatives” over the past 5 years when they have coincidentally experienced unprecedented low levels of productivity. An inconvenient truth that nobody from the E4S Task Force dares mention.

Revolution or circular argument?

Bolton believes that performance drives engagement (not vice-versa) and he refers to the hard evidence of human capital rather than employee engagement metrics. His evidence seems to be based on the fact that customer satisfaction improves when transactional roles in banks and restaurants are fulfilled by older, part-time workers.  If his “new deal diagnostic tool” correlates Net Promoter Score (NPS) with Return On Invested Human Capital (ROIHC) then he may just have won the battle for relevance but lost the war for talent. We will see.

KPMG are talking about a revolution for people management and E4S are promoting two circular arguments to make the case for employee engagement.     Here’s how these circular arguments go.

1. research characteristics of ‘high-performing’ companies (12 will do) and call them ‘drivers of engagement’. Conduct further research in other organisations against these characteristics and correlate results with ‘high performance’.

2. agree characteristics of great places to work (4 will do) and call them ‘enablers of engagement’. Seek organisations where management intervention has led to successful business outcomes, retrospectively label these interventions as ‘enablers’ and write a case study.

Two half truths don’t make a whole truth – they just equate to one big, fat lie.

The golden triangle for HR relevance

Bolton argues that the HRD creates a “golden triangle” with the CEO and FD when she brings data on the human capital balance sheet! Bolton calls this HR’s battle for relevance, adding value, not cost, to the bottom line.

This argument makes Bolton sound like a schoolboy desperate to play in the big boy’s playground. Lacking the physique and skill to play football, he works out he could hustle a position on the bench by bringing along a shiny new ball for everyone else to play with.  I can picture him watching the big boys kick his ball from one end of the pitch to the other before he finally to retrieve it from the prickly bushes when it’s kicked over the playground fence. Tucking his deflated, mud-covered football under his arm as he runs home before it gets dark.

The golden chance for IC excellence (ICE)

If HR are battling for relevance, their sparring partners in IC are striving for excellence. Long-term antagonist of the McEngagement movement, Mike Klein, believes IC is at a crossroads (mmm…heard that one before) with a “golden chance” to decouple business communications from employee engagement  and demonstrate that internal communications excellence is an enabler to improved business performance.  I agree with Mike but, to Bolton’s point, where’s the evidence?

This is where IC have failed and KPMG have got it right.  Evidence-based people management. The irony is that all the evidence is there, if only IC could start looking through the right end of the telescope.  Every single case study presented by E4S has a major internal communications element. Forget retrofitting the interventions into “engagement enablers” and just call it communications. Think about it

1. Strategic narrative – communicating the brand story

2. Engaging managers – managers that hold engaging conversations

3. Employee voice – communications coming back up the line

4. Integrity – demonstrating SAY=DO is at least 50% is communications (SAY)

It is also time to stop linking communications interventions to random, meaningless benchmark metrics like Q12 scores.  Instead create leading IC KPIs that can correlate with real business outcomes and lagging business KPIs.  No need for a generic set of IC benchmark scores or an IC comms audit.  No need for a “new deal diagnostic tool” We just need measure the impact of our business communications.

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