Does technology improve employee engagement?

The endless parade of technologies to improve workforce collaboration has certainly led to the shrinking of time and distance, but has it actually let to a long-term increase in engagement and business performance? What should enterprises do today?
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

From telephone and e-mail in the 20th century to unified communication and enterprise social networks in the 21st, businesses have long applied the latest technology in the hopes of improving efficiency and productivity. When this happens successfully, the investment turns in sufficient business impact to justify the cost. When it doesn't, businesses eventually try something else.

Why would enterprises continue to do this decade after decade, when many of these experiments fail or times inevitably change? It's because interaction and collaboration amongst employees is the very lifeblood of the typical businesses. Data consistently shows that good collaboration can have dramatic consequences in terms of business results, from minor efficiencies that might enable the delivery of cheaper products to market, all the way up to the creation of game-changing new advances that can remake an entire industry. The question then, is how to best lay down a long-term strategy that will continually engage employees through the inevitable changes, innovations, and disruptions in the marketplace.

One of today's biggest challenges in doing this is sheer choice: The palette of potential technologies and products that purport to make it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate has become at best an embarrassment of riches and at worst an impenetrable morass of options. At the same time, there's also a growing realization that technology by itself does have real limits in how much it can fundamentally improve the human condition in the workplace.

In the process of applying technology, we can't forget that workforce engagement, the measure of whether an employee merely does the minimum required of them, versus proactively driving innovation and new value for the organization, is the ultimate objective here. Thus, engagement can only ever be partially accounted for by deploying the latest new collaborative technology, and probably significantly less than many of its proponents would have you believe.


Thus short-term technology "fixes" to employee engagement, no matter how novel, are likely to have limited results in organizations that are structured poorly to encourage it. Unfortunately, the "provide and pray" model for rolling out the latest innovations in engagement is still the norm and not the exception.

As we look at some of the latest data on employee engagement (a typical sample depicted below, showing the most engaged firms have 3.9 times earnings per share), either globally or just in North America, I believe two obvious conclusions can be drawn: 1) The level of worker engagement in large companies is dishearteningly low today by any measure, but 2) that means the good news is that there is considerable opportunity for improvement. While it's beyond the scope of this piece to explore in detail, the most critical factors for engagement are shown above, and I'd note they frequently aren't affected deeply by technology.

Given the parade of data on low worker engagement lately, commentators and analysts have come out of woodwork this year, claiming that the industrial era model of work is "broken", that that even the latest new models (such as social business, better intranets, unified communication, or fill-in-the-blank) for fixing this are "dead", and more. There's little doubt that things could be greatly improved, but what exactly is wrong is as variable as the lens being used, as is the potential range of solutions.

A few good examples are in order of the current industry discussion. Ex-IBMer and Forbes columnist Rawn Shah recently posted a widely discussed examination of how "Work is broken; Let's Hack it", observing:

Workers are in pain with complex, overwhelming, matrixed responsibilities. Employee engagement in the workplace continues to fall when they consider their employer’s loyalty to their “most-valued-assets” simply as lip service. In turn, employees continue jump from company to company seeking greener pastures.

Or as Chris Heuer noted last month in Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next!:

The challenge is that most managers don’t trust their employees and don’t even want them speaking publicly about the company, lest they create litigation or a PR disaster. This state of affairs is a evidenced by the broken employer-employee relationship in many organizations that is in a downward spiral of distrust, resentment and passive aggressive or outright hostility as reflected in the dismal employee engagement surveys Gallup and many others have conducted.

So for now it's increasingly likely that advances in engagement purely do to the inherent power of digital technology may have met up with the inherent vagaries of human nature. Ironically, worker engagement is actually declining in today's ultra-connected, post-industrial, perma-mobile, always-on society. In  short, by failing to address the entire engagement picture, it's not likely that breakthrough new gains in collaboration are to be had. What then does this fuller engagement picture look like?

Improving Engagement by Understanding It

Employee engagement consists of multiple factors, which for convenience I've put into two buckets: Motivators and activators. Motivators are aspects of work that make an employee have more desire to do it, like a decent salary, a pleasant workplace environment, having interesting work to do, and a path to personal and career growth. Only a few of these factors, however, are directly affected by technology.

The second class of factors is more interesting in that regard. Activators include good tools to support the work being done, a supportive team-based environment, having a voice in matters and being recognized for good work, having room to learn and grow, as well as having a measure of workplace autonomy. Many of these can be affected by improving the connection to one's co-workers or providing more reach and relevance of workers' ideas, all things that collaborative tools -- particularly newer ones like social tools or enterprise gamification -- can certainly enable.

At this point in the collaborative revolution, it's become clear to many observers that culture change is one of the largest remaining obstacles to near-term advances in engagement, and therefore collaboration. This then is the obstacle to the more interesting and valuable downstream outcomes that can result if these factors improve. In this view, the hierarchical and bureaucratic structure and processes of the typical large enterprise today are actively hindering further improvement. The core idea here is that networked-based structures and online communities can provide richer, far more innovative results at a fraction of the cost, and build strong and much harder to disrupt relationships with the entire stakeholder ecosystem.

Workforce engagement gap and potential benefits (data)

If if all of this true, and there is certainly a growing base of data (McKinsey's is probably the most thorough currently) to support it, then the issue is "simply" to move the organization's thinking from Point A to Point B. And therein likely lies both the key to the problem and its potential solution. There is a reason that many of the most successful social businesses were created from the ground up with this new model, from Amazon's millions of product reviewers and other co-creators, to Facebook and YouTube's hundreds of millions of content co-creators, or the millions of new social business micro-entrepreneurs who are plugging into the new collaborative economy networks. Namely, they started with community and peer production.

The problem then is this: Digital natives don't have to unlearn and then unwind process, culture, and behavior on a massive scale. Their legacy baggage is small enough to realize the changes required to reach the next-generation of workforce and customer engagement. While times are clearly changing quickly, unfortunately most large companies just aren't adapting to the network model quickly enough, compared to their network-centric peers.

Can Most Companies Improve Digital Engagement?

But all the news is not bad for traditional companies. Not at all, as it turns out. As I uncovered in the research for my book last year, there are now many examples of traditional companies moving to network models for key functions. Intuit with its mass peer-production customer care, TELUS and its 50% increase in employee engagement with social media, as well as SAP, IBM, Ford, BASF, and a fair number of others. So some companies are clearly making the transition, often I'd note pointedly, by committing totally and experimenting with tolerance for learning from inevitable mistakes.

So to come full circle, technology certainly can greatly improve the engagement of employees and therefore the performance of organization, but only if they are ready to make the fundamental changes required to take inherent advantage of the unique power that a new technology makes possible.

In other words, it shouldn't be surprising that acquiring a powerful new engagement technology, and then not focusing on using what makes it so powerful, results in poor outcomes. A few test questions can illuminate this point: Are you rolling out social media broadly across the organization, yet not methodically opening up business processes to wider participation and scruntiny? Then you'll get limited results. Are you creating a new intranet with some social features but keeping the publishing process locked down? Not much new will happen. Are you letting employees talk to customers via social media? Then customer care is going to stay expensive and poor quality.

Digital leaders of tomorrow, and therefore the business leaders, are finding that their businesses are becoming networks, and in ways they never anticipated. This is leading to empowerment on an entirely new scale for those that embrace it. I'll say it again, just like folks like Harold Jarche are, "Networks are the new companies." The faster we can internalize and activate that with new technology and a new mindset, the richer we all become.


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