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Survey Research – A Tale of Two Companies

Company A was the best of companies; Company B was the worst of companies. Both Company A and Company B recently conducted employee engagement surveys. These surveys enabled executives at each business to put their fingers on the pulse of their companies. Employee surveys are critical to business success. Research has shown repeatedly that the attitudes and behaviors of employees can increase customer satisfaction. Executives from each company received two very different reports at the completion of the surveys.

Let’s begin with Company A. The employee engagement survey conducted by Company A covered five topics including health, supervision, engagement, management style, and communications. The results of this scientific employee survey were benchmarked against other companies in the same industry. Benchmarking is important because it is impossible to meaningfully and objectively interpret raw scores as you have no standard against which to compare them. Benchmarking gives meaning to each score as it provides an objective standard. The 50th percentile represents the national average for the industry. In the survey conducted by Company A, any topic scoring at the 75th percentile or better was classified as a strength of that company. This means that when Company A is compared to other companies in the same industry, most companies score lower on this particular topic. If a topic scores between the 50th and 74th percentiles, it is classified as an area of opportunity for the company. Topics are classified as weaknesses if they score between the 25th and 49th percentiles and as threats if they fall at or below the 24th percentile. All five of Company A’s topics scored as strengths; a remarkable achievement!

The findings of an analysis of the individual survey questions comprising each topic were very impressive as well. This analysis also provided benchmarked scores using the same categories discussed above. Eighty-eight percent of the items on Company A’s survey scored in the strengths category! The remaining 12% of the items all scored in the opportunities category. It is worth noting that all of these items were at the 70th percentile or above, scoring very closely to the strengths category. Based on the results from the analyses of the topics and individual survey questions, it is no surprise that Company A had an overall company score that placed their company in the strength category with a score 28 percentiles above the national average!

The results of the survey at Company B painted a much bleaker picture. Their survey also covered five topics. Not a single topic scored in the strengths category! Two topics, “safety” and “engagement,” scored in the opportunities category and two, “supervision” and “performance evaluations,” scored in the weaknesses category. Company B even had one topic scoring in the worst category, threat. The topic scoring in this category was “human resources.”

An analysis of each survey question further illustrated the poor performance of Company B. Not a single survey question scored in the strengths category. Eight questions scored in the opportunities category. Most of the questions on Company B’s survey fell in the weaknesses category; with a total of 30 questions scoring in this range! Finally, there was also one question in the threat category. Not surprisingly, Company B’s overall company score placed it below the national average.

What are your aspirations for your own company? Which company would you like your own to emulate, Company A or Company B? It is safe to say we would all like our companies to have scores similar to those of Company A. As an organizational psychologist I have had executives ask me on numerous occasions, “What do we need to do to make our company score in the “best” category?” Not surprisingly, no one has ever asked me “What can we do to make our company score in the “worst” category?” No matter what scores our company earns when benchmarked against the competition, we would all like to improve. Even when our scores are near the top we set goals to go even higher. Why? Because we all know…

A company that is not growing is stagnating.

When thinking about this statement we can get a mental image of stagnant water. Stagnant water is not appealing in the least and neither is a stagnant company. A company must grow to remain competitive. In an article published in the journal Long Range Planning, Mel Scott and Richard Bruce discuss stages of business growth. They state that change is required in order to transition from one stage of growth to the next. According to Scott and Bruce, it is imperative for companies to be proactive rather than reactive. Knowledge of how to bring about change is essential for the growth and development of a company.

So how does a company bring about change for the better? Is there a “one-size-fits-all” solution to this question? The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

The answer is in some respects “yes” because the starting point for bringing about change and growth is the same for all businesses. That starting point is research. One thing that both Company A and Company B are doing right is conducting scientific research with their employees. This research has identified areas of strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats. Once these results are obtained however, the course of action becomes unique. That is why the answer to the question, “Is there a one-size-fits-all solution?” is also “no” because each company’s survey results will produce a different set of marching orders. Let’s examine how this is true for Company A and Company B.

This time let’s start with the company most obviously in need of change, Company B. The results of their survey were certainly discouraging. And with 77% of their survey questions scoring in the weakness category where do they begin? Trying to decide which issues to address in such a situation can be overwhelming. But it does not have to be. Fortunately, the decision of where to begin was an easy one for Company B. The scientific study conducted at their company involved a sophisticated process of statistical procedures known as the Root Cause Analysis (RCA). This procedure examines the relationships between the responses to all of the items on the survey from all of the respondents. Not only does the RCA identify which items are related to each other but it goes beyond mere correlations to identify which items actually cause changes in other items. Thus, Company B’s survey report identified a few key survey questions that, if improved, would bring about improvements in a large number of other survey questions. These key items, the Root Causes, are listed on the report along with a complete list of all the other survey questions they drive. In the case of Company B there were two Root Causes. The primary Root Cause “My supervisor addresses workplace issues in a timely manner” influenced 30% of the other questions on the survey. Meaning that if Company B takes action to positively change employee perceptions of just this one survey question an additional 30% of the questions on their survey will show improved scores as well. The secondary Root Cause identified was “I have the training to do my job.” This question was driving 28% of the other survey questions. Thus, Company B need only bring about changes in two survey questions in order to improve the scores on over half (58%) of the questions on their survey! What initially appeared overwhelming is, with the proper statistical tools, a very manageable task.

Now let’s look at Company A. Their scores were great. However, executives at Company A want to keep on changing and growing to ensure continued success. But where do you begin when your scores are so favorable? Answering this question can be just as difficult, or more so, than when a majority of your survey items have scored poorly. Fortunately, Company A’s survey report also identified Root Causes. Three Root Causes were identified that were driving a total of 84% of all the survey questions! The primary Root Cause was “Management employees behave according to the company’s values.” This Root Cause was driving 32% of the other survey questions. The secondary Root Cause “I know who to ask when I have questions” was driving 28% of the survey questions. Finally, 24% of the survey questions were being driven by the third Root Cause “I understand the short- and long-term goals of the company.” By initiating changes to facilitate improvement in employee perceptions and attitudes about only these three survey questions, Company A can bring about positive change in almost all of their other survey questions! Could reaching for the top be any simpler?

To a certain extent, the bottom line answer to the question “Is there a “one-size-fits-all solution to bringing about company growth and improvement?” is “yes.” As we have already established, you have to begin with research. Both Company A and Company B did something right by conducting scientific research. Although their Root Causes were different, once again they both need to do the same thing…

Take action.

They must both take action to bring about positive changes in their employee perceptions of their Root Causes. Leaving the survey results lying in a file drawer and hoping that things will be better next year is just as successful as burying your life savings in the backyard and hoping they will grow. It does not work.

There is something else that Company A and Company B both did right. They hired a consulting firm that would provide them with the information they needed to take action. Both companies were provided with a scientifically sound survey, benchmarking data, and root causes. Unfortunately, these things are not provided by every consulting firm. Some firms try to present the data in such a way as to make executives feel good about their company. Such firms make me think of a T-shirt I’ve seen in catalogs that says, “When all else fails, manipulate the data.” While sugar-coating survey results may make you feel good in the short-run, in the long-run it will impede your ability to take action that will facilitate positive growth and change.

In order for survey results to be beneficial, it is imperative that the survey be designed and analyzed by a company that will stand on scientific principles and be a straight-shooter even when the results may not be what you want to hear. One company that has consistently provided scientific data to businesses for more than 35 years is the National Business Research Institute (NBRI). Their commitment to providing businesses with the best scientific data to help them succeed is what led them to develop the Root Cause Analysis statistical procedure. No other statistical tool can provide your company with more accurate marching orders.

If you would like more information on how your company can conduct a scientifically sound survey and acquire information to facilitate change and growth, contact NBRI at 800-756-6168.

Ken West

Chief Operating Officer

National Business Research Institute

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