People & Culture often face an uphill battle when trying to secure time and budget for more strategic initiatives. How can P&C professionals change this? As Ryan McGrory showed us, collecting, analysing and acting on data opens up huge opportunities for improving P&C programs and building a better employee experience.
This article is a summary of our interview with Ryan in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
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Why does data matter in People & Culture?
Ryan: I arrived in the people and culture space from a background in marketing, journalism and PR. So I was always concerned about perception, effective communication and messaging.
My first role was in HR. I had a really small budget to deliver a health and well-being program. My questions then were, how do I influence people and get more budget? How do I improve the effectiveness of this program? How do I change behaviour, prove I’ve done something good, and maybe get more money through promotion? And the answers lay in measuring and using data.
There are some real problems in people and culture at the moment when it comes to attraction, engagement and retention and how they’re hurting the bottom line. So questions like the ones I had are actually top of everyone’s mind. How do we measure things, how do we prove things, and how do we show a return on investment?
This shift isn’t easy. When you look at people and culture, I’d say we’re quite behind with data measurement compared to other functions. And that’s a shame, because once you have data and you’re leveraging it, it does you a world of good.
“When people ask, ‘Why should we invest in this initiative? Why should we do this thing, or why do we need people’s time for it?’ You can say, ‘Well, we’ve measured this in our workplace.’ You haven’t just taken some Richard Branson quote and put it in the slide deck, which everyone does.”
The measurement mindset
What mindset underpins a successful data focus in People & Culture?
Ryan: I think it’s a three-step process.
First, you have to care. If you want to do data measurement properly, you have to care about what you’re doing and its purpose. In people and culture in particular, there aren’t so many blueprints for doing this, so you have to rely more on innovation and creativity. If you don’t care, you’ll either give up or do things half-heartedly.
Second, you have to give it a crack. It’s about trying hard and putting in the effort, and realising that measurement is probably not going to be easy if you haven’t done it before. You have to commit to what you’re doing.
And the third step is to just keep going. When you make mistakes — and you will — you have to figure things out and just keep going.
“Nothing is perfect. I think it’s important to be at ease with that and have a commitment to doing things even when they’re tough, hard or broken.”
As an example, let’s say you’re starting a health and well-being program. You have to care about that to start with. You have to care about the outcomes and what you’re trying to achieve.
Once you’ve decided you care about those outcomes, you can start to define them and work out what it takes to measure those things. You give it a crack. If you want to deliver health outcomes, you have to measure what those health outcomes are. You look at what you would like to measure versus what you can practically measure and you try to find a data point. And then you just keep going.
Getting started with effective measurement
What measures are good to focus on in the beginning?
Ryan: Participation is an easy choice. Most HR initiatives involve people doing things. If you have a program then you need people to do it, so there’s a participation or engagement metric.
Even just knowing who completed something or did something, or who was involved to some degree in a program — that’s an amazing measurement to have. It’s absolute gold.
“It doesn’t take very long to put the names of people who are participating in a program into a spreadsheet or database and then have a look at that. And right there, you're already outperforming a lot of people.”
Once you have a list of people who do stuff and don’t do stuff, you can start to correlate that with other data. What do you want to look at: maybe productivity, turnover or employee satisfaction? What data measures do you have for those? Then you can hypothesise the impact that your program’s having. You can say, people who are investing time in well-being or learning or whatever have more positive outcomes in these other areas.
With a simple metric like this, you also have what you need to invest in continuous improvement. You can look at who isn’t turning up to the program and maybe convince them to just try. Or you can look at who is only turning up a bit and convince them to attend more often. A lot of other strategies come into that, but with measurement, you’ve already got a huge run on the board.
Why do we need to move beyond just measurement?
Ryan: I think there’s a lot to be said for taking action.
“People think that they measure something and then they somehow improve, just like that. But it isn’t like that. You actually have to do something: you have to figure out what to do and then take action. That gets forgotten.”
Certain HR leaders have the belief that they’re taking action when all they’re doing is measuring. They’ll read a company whitepaper and buy their tech to measure things, and then they’ll believe that they’re improving well-being because they’ve implemented what the whitepaper said.
On the other hand, I’ve talked to people who have actual solution-focused software and they can’t find the right clients. They can’t find them because everyone thinks they’re doing something already, just by measuring. It’s weird.
Measurement in practice: Improving employee engagement, health and well-being
How can organisations improve how they use engagement surveys?
Ryan: I was in an organisation that was measuring employee engagement in a pretty typical way, with annual reviews. They’d pop out once a year and there’d be a whole bunch of action to try and improve things, and then a year later, they’d do the same again.
It never sat well with me that this was the best way to measure employee engagement. Through the lens of employee experience, it was questionable whether we were measuring things and asking questions when they mattered. By extension, I wondered why we were asking people how satisfied they were with their work and pay when they exited the organisation. Was that really the right time for those questions?
My solution was to sit down and plot out the lifecycle in that organisation. What were the key moments? Could we look at what was happening and ask questions right then, instead of six months later in an annual review? And then take action, instead of waiting for months later when it wouldn’t be relevant?
We worked out the stages and made sure we asked the right questions: usually just two or three questions every couple of months, so we weren’t being a pain. That was fewer questions than in a typical engagement survey, so we were effectively annoying people less but getting more relevant information.
And after we’d built up all this data, it didn’t matter what fortnight it was, you could look at the dashboard and know how life was at the company right then. Say the CEO had just given a town hall: we could look at the response. Or they’d just updated the strategy: we could see an uplift.
Following on from that, we could relate parts of the employee experience — and the happy and unhappy cohorts — to other trends. How were the happy people correlating with things like productivity and sick leave? What was dragging the unhappy people down? When we knew what each cohort was thinking, we had a real opportunity to influence outcomes and results.
What’s a surprising impact you’ve uncovered in your work?
Ryan: There was one thing we discovered when I was at Youi Insurance. We were running a hugely successful health and well-being problem with high participation and real impact. We were measuring everything we were doing to the point where we could look at certain activities and see the impact directly.
There wasn’t much we weren’t doing: there was fitness stuff, mental health training, financial literacy, confidence-building and a lot of info sessions. But when we measured it all, we saw that the part with the most impact was something called Fun and Learning.
This was working with people in a call centre, which is a largely sedentary environment. A lot of that work is scripted: just following what’s written on the screen. We ran these half-hour sessions that were about fun and learning: there were guitar lessons and language lessons; there was cupcake decorating, cooking and all sorts. People could go in and pick up a new skill or give something a crack, then go back to work.
"When we measured the impact, these were the types of events and activities that had the strongest and most positive relationship with leave reduction, improved employee satisfaction and turnover, among other measures."
With this audience, we also knew that anything that was impacting employee satisfaction was directly linked to our customer satisfaction scores, so Fun and Learning was indirectly improving customer experience. That was a great result.
Getting proactive with data
What are some other ways that data can benefit an organisation?
Ryan: Action plans are a typical place to start. Say someone is trying to influence a particular result in your organisation. How are they trying to do that? What are they doing and when are they doing it? Look at those things, then measure whether they’re actually having an impact.
If you can do this at scale throughout your organisation, you have a bunch of information about what leaders are doing to try and solve an issue and how successful they’ve been. Then, when something goes wrong, you have a list of ways that people have tried to correct it before and a list of what was successful. So you can give leaders recommendations early and move from the reactive to the proactive space.
“You can use data to say, this type of thing was happening last time and here’s what helped other leaders. And if you can do that correctly and get good at studying trends, you can get into prevention and then prediction, which is a really good space to be in. And you get there all just by starting to improve the way you’re collecting data.”
What do you see as the next step to improve data measurement in P&C?
Ryan: I think a big obstacle to developing more data initiatives is confidence, so data literacy is key. It’s good that people are starting to talk about data more and understand that there’s a greater need for it, as I think that will boost investment in literacy.
I saw a great example in Singapore, where a council paid for everyone in the organisation to take data literacy courses. They believed that everyone could benefit from having a better understanding of data, so they invested a huge amount and made sure that everyone went through training that was relevant to their seniority in the business.
I’m excited that things like this are happening. Particularly in the people and culture space, we’re a bit behind, and initiatives like this can help us take huge leaps forward.
Ryan McGrory is an award-winning Employee Experience specialist and founder of Exsona, a company dedicated to helping organisations improve how they attract, retain and engage their people. Follow him on LinkedIn or check out Ryan’s podcast Let’s Talk about EX here.