Gauging workforce sentiment is never easy in an organisation with 184,000 employees in 52 countries, much less ensuring that the results won’t end up as footnotes in a buried and unactioned report.
That’s why, before she steered her HR organisation on a two-year cultural fact-finding mission, KPMG head of people, performance and culture Susan Ferrier made sure she had some frank discussions with company management.
“We told the executive team ‘we’re not going to undertake this survey unless you guys take it seriously’,” Ferrier recalled at a recent IBM workforce-analysis seminar in Melbourne.
“It was going to involve taking my team offline so they couldn’t think of anything else for three to four months. And I said to the executives that if this was something that was going to be meaningful, I would need them to take it to the next level.”
That meant walking the walk as well as talking the talk – and it kicked off a massive survey of the company’s employees that has, with the aid of a massive data-gathering effort and ongoing analytics using IBM’s Kenexa workplace-management tools, helped identify and bridge yawning cultural gaps between information workers and company executives.
The very fact that the process was undertaken reflected concerns that the old top-down paradigms of business culture simply don’t work anymore – especially in the modern era where social-media empowered employees are used to having their say about everything they do.
“Having a high performance people culture is at the heart of our strategy, and we’re in the middle of a global conversation about purpose,” Ferrier said.
“One of the lessons we’ve learned from previous work is that the CEO just can’t publish some statement to the whole firm and say ‘here’s our new purpose’. It needs to be something that’s dug out from inside the organisation – and it needs to be managed in a way where everybody gets to feel it, smell it, understand it and live it.”
The CEO just can’t publish some statement to the whole firm and say ‘here’s our new purpose’. It needs to be something that’s dug out from inside the organisation – and it needs to be managed in a way where everybody gets to feel it, smell it, understand it and live it.
In such a large people-based organisation, such an ambitious effort can be fraught with difficulty – the least of which is the basic act of conducting the survey.
To ensure the results were representative across KPMG’s massive and diverse employee base, the HR team had a ticker loaded onto the company’s intranet that would show the completion rate for the survey at any given time.
Business units were pushed to “healthy competition” to get employees involved, and the HR and communications teams worked together to ensure employees were peppered with reminders about the survey. The team even did a “desk drop” of yellow sticky notes to remind employees to take the time to be involved.
The approach worked: the final response rate was around 82%, Ferrier said, highlighting strong success on the part of the participating business units as well as reflecting the desire of more than 150,000 KPMG employees to be heard.
Several dozen national working groups helped correlate the feedback from employees in different KPMG regions, which was then presented to the national executives in a process aimed at surfacing salient issues.
“It has been really fantastic to see the mostly under-30 people coming to the table,” she said. “They were absolutely terrified, but have been doing a fabulous job putting forward their ideas and responding to the engagement survey.”
Numbers into action
Determined not to let that feedback languish in the meeting minutes, early on Ferrier and her team began working out ways to ensure the employee feedback was translated into actionable items for the executives.
This included ‘Project Magellan’, a leadership training program that is being delivered to all of KPMG’s senior executives to help them improve their management of today’s ever more-complex HR environment.
The program is directly addressing survey results showing that, true to the precepts of social-media engagement, employees “want to be led in quite a different way to how we wanted to be led” years ago, Ferrier explained.
“There are many business partners that just don’t get the connection between business results and employee engagement – so you have to keep producing analysis that shows them the connection....The key is to communicate the survey results, and communicate what employees are saying – so it’s visible to everybody that there is activity going on and that they’re involved."
One key method for keeping executives engaged in the process was to use balanced-scorecard tools to correlate surveyed measures of employee engagement in different KPMG divisions with the business results of those visions. A formal ‘Engagement Index’ is being embedded into conversations as a measure of the company’s firmwide strategic results – and a way of benchmarking cultural change across the organisation.
“We’ve done correlations between the business results and engagement levels in one part of the business and the results and engagement levels in a part of the business where the results aren’t the same,” Ferrier said.
“Now that it’s in our balanced scorecard, it has given us a really interesting, persuasive, compelling case to take to the business team. There are many business partners that just don’t get the connection between business results and employee engagement – so you have to keep producing analysis that shows them the connection.”
Another productive strategy was to limit the scope of the action plans coming out of the survey results: rather than flooding executives with a long check-list, Ferrier’s team limited action plans to just two or three items each – and made sure that the communications team remained engaged so that they were highlighted to everyone they affected.
“Nobody can remember more than two or three things that are specific for parts of the business,” Ferrier said. “We put a bit of organisation around that, with things like process templates and traffic lights to highlight the business plans. But the key is to communicate the survey results, and communicate what employees are saying – so it’s visible to everybody that there is activity going on and that they’re involved.”
Throughout the process of translating survey results into action, Ferrier has kept one core fact in mind: “gone are the days when you could do stuff in HR just because it feels like the right thing,” she laughed. “We’ve had to make sure that whatever we are working on is very well backed-up and thought through with a commercial business case.”