Pulse Surveys May Be The Worst Management Idea Ever

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(Steve Boese posted today on how Netflix sees their real time data and the HR spin. It reminded me of the following slightly edited post I wrote back in February 2015 on a different blog. Enjoy this blast from the past.)


Big data is all the rage. It has been seen on all the fashion runways related to tech and HR. If you aren’t wearing big data, you are soooo behind the times. Big data provides the promise and the fantasy of being able to make infallible decisions based on the Everest-sized piles of data. ‘Cuz we all know that more data is better. Right? More is always better (however, it usually just means more.)

More is always better (however, it usually just means more.)

And big data in HR has a place.

Don’t get me wrong. I like data. I was a statistics major and have always been a numbers guy.

I like big data and I cannot lie. But… and that’s a big but… big data isn’t always THE answer.

Pulse Surveys

The newest survey fad are “pulse surveys.” The blogsphere is full of pundits and gurus chin-wagging like crazy about “pulse surveys.” For the survey challenged, pulse surveys are quick, fast, short, surveys that can be sent out daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc., to solicit feedback on how employees “feel” about their job, the company and their manager.

The impetus of this idea is that annual “engagement” surveys doesn’t provide real-time information – information that can be used at that moment when an employee is “disengaged.” And that is a true statement. Annual surveys are at best an average of 12 months of how an employee feels and at worst the way an employee feels at that precise moment they take the survey. Neither of those results are truly accurate representations of the state of engagement at a company. However, I still think there is a place for seeing “engagement” scores over the course of year – nothing wrong with that. If you want to impact engagement, you need some measure of where you start to track change.

However, as many gurus and prognosticators would have you think that the more you survey the better. More data points = more accurate information.

However, what is really true is that more data points = more noise, less signal, less accuracy.

Too Much Data – Too Many Adjustments

Josh Bersin believes it is the next coming of engagement data. (Check audio interview here on Blogging for Jobs – minute 28 is where he starts going gaga on real-time data.) Josh tells the story of how “real-time” data saved a company from failure (I’m embellishing – but he did think it was very interesting) but from where I sit it was more an issue of poor manager engagement than an issue of survey frequency. Good managers are in tune with their employees. (IMHO – real-time surveys are simply one more way to use technology to cover poor managers’ asses.)

Both Josh and Jessica-Miller Merrill (the host of the discussion) think this “new” capability will change the employee engagement world.

I do to…but I think it will change engagement for the worse.

Here’s my point. Right now most HRIS systems provide a ton of data outputs. Many companies conduct Employee Engagement surveys and also have reward and recognition systems that capture ongoing data on recognition events in their company and have data outputs, reports and dashboards.

There is NO lack of data in the HR space.

Is it pretty data? No.

Is it a sexy application hosted in the cloud? Not all if it.

Is anyone using it? To quote I, Robot“That, Detective, is the “right question.”

The issue today isn’t a lack of data as much as it is a lack of focus on the data and a lack of understanding about the data and its implications. Most HR people don’t have the education needed around statistics and math to help them understand relationships and patterns in the data.

Let me repeat – It is not a lack of data.

So…

Riddle me this Batman… how will increasing the amount of data by many multiples have any effect on the HRs ability to drive business results?

It won’t. It will simply increase the amount of data that is being ignored.

It will increase the amount of confusion around engagement.

More, faster, simpler surveys will make HR more confused and make managers less effective.

I look at the weekly “pulse” survey like trying to drive from New York to California only watching the road 3 feet in front of the car.

That is how I see the issue of pulse surveys.

Managers will shift from focusing on long-term issues to trying to manage those short-term, quick results on a week to week time frame. They will try to make sure that every week at the company is the Best Week Ever.

And as we all know… that is just stupid.

Everyone has ups and downs. Everyone is a moving emotional target.

Trying to manage engagement on more frequent basis is either a very bad idea – or the worst idea.

What do you think? Is more data a bigger problem than not enough data when it comes to employee engagement?

One thought on “Pulse Surveys May Be The Worst Management Idea Ever

  1. “…it is a lack of focus on the data and a lack of understanding about the data and its implications” Spot on, I say! There is little understanding of what the data we already have is telling us, so adding to the pile makes no sense.

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