Employee communication pattern monitoring: A promising productivity tool?

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New HCM technology is giving HR and management a new window into employee engagement and productivity—and thus more power to influence them. To explore this topic, EBN recently spoke to David Mallon, the head of research for Bersin by Deloitte. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

EBN: What’s happening with the use of HCM systems to gauge and promote employee motivation, engagement and, ultimately, productivity?

Mallon: That’s an exploding field. There used to be a lot of activity around feedback channels, social recognition, and creating platforms for employees to get feedback and recognition from each other, and give it. That’s still part of the landscape, but there’s a lot more going on with really understanding where employees’ heads are, and aggregating feedback from all stakeholders, and making sense of it.

EBN: How so?

Mallon: It begins with tracking employees as soon as they come into the organization, from multiple perspectives, and how they are being managed and how they operate on a team level. Technology is making available an ever-growing set of tools -- dashboards showing how their team is performing in any given timeframe, and how the individuals on the team are doing against the goals that they’re given.

EBN: Let’s look at how companies learn how employees perceive their situation. What are the basic mechanisms?

Mallon: A lot of companies still ask the traditional questions around engagement, but asking them in ever-increasing time cycles, like a quick pulse-taking. Instead of getting an annual survey that’s 20 questions long, these employees may be getting a one- or two-question survey every week. It’s more about sentiment than just asking, “Are you engaged?” These surveys can rotate around different parts of the organization, and you roll those up to get a more nuanced picture of what’s happening enterprise-wide.

EBN: What about getting those insights without explicitly asking employees how they’re feeling?

Mallon: Some organizations are capturing that passively, with data mining. They’re doing text analysis of internal collaboration systems. You can get a sense of the hot topics, what are people are worried about, what are they talking about, what’s going on. This kind of network analysis helps employers identify where productivity issues might be. It’s also important for preserving and promoting the employer brand. What your employees are saying internally is going to get into the public through social media, so it’s important to be aware of that.

EBN: Can this kind of monitoring and analysis account for team dynamics, since employees generally aren’t working in a vacuum?

Mallon: Yes, some companies are approaching engagement and productivity from a team health perspective. They produce a dashboard that supervisors get. It’s an aggregation point for several categories of data—wellness, productivity, and engagement. I like to use a medical analogy. Every year, ideally, you see the general practitioner, who looks for things that might require a deeper dive, to determine whether an intervention is required. So it’s a starting point.

EBN: Is this like putting a kind of Fitbit on employees?

Mallon: You can make that comparison. It doesn’t give a specific diagnosis, but suggests a different kind of behavior, like more steps each day might be helpful. It could tell a supervisor, “Hey, maybe you should let the team go out for lunch today,” or “Maybe you should go check in with Bob because maybe there is something else going on in Bob’s world.” And it might be a good time to suggest that Bob check out some of the resources the employer offers around wellbeing or financial wellness.

EBN: How can that be monitored without being overly intrusive?

Mallon: One way to assess individual and team productivity and health, which are related, is to look at the communication paths in the organization--who’s talking to whom? What are the networks within your part of the organization? Who are those mavens that are the connectors – the people that everything seems to go through? Are there unusual, unnatural or unproductive bottlenecks in the organization that we can look at working around? How can we strengthen the right kinds of networks? Solutions like Slack are designed to help with communication and access to institutional knowledge.

EBN: That process sounds rather daunting.

Mallon: This has been a field of academic research for some time, but we’re still in the very early stages of putting it to practical use, with tools available on the market. It’s leading edge.

EBN: Can you offer an example?

Mallon: Solutions like TrustSphere operate in this space. Once you take a snapshot of those overall communication pathways, patterns tend to emerge. You can determine which patterns are healthy, which are not, then determine what you can do about it at an organization-design level. That may mean redesigning roles, and rethinking accountability and incentive systems to encourage the right kinds of communication and, ultimately, results.

EBN: What would an unhealthy pattern look like?

Mallon: It might be, for example, if someone is becoming isolated, turning into an island, isn’t receiving or initiating dialog with others in the organization that should be part of that individual’s network. Or it could be the opposite, where it seems like all the communication has to go through one person, which could create both a bottleneck and a vulnerability. When patterns that might be unhealthy emerge, you just get a sort of “check engine” light. The system isn’t diagnosing or looking into the content of communications, just the patterns between the people involved.

EBN: What’s next?

Mallon: Many organizations are moving to flatter or more team-based models. So they naturally gravitate toward technology platforms that are about team health, team productivity, managing goals or OKRs, objectives and key results. The complexity of communication can be greater in a flatter organization, and the quality of communication can be even more critical to the organization’s success, so you can expect to see these systems getting better and better.

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Employee communications Employee relations Employee turnover Employee engagement Workforce management HR Technology