Going for the Gold in Research

Going for the Gold in Research

Every two years athletes from all over the world gather to compete in either the summer or winter Olympic Games. They all come with the same goal in mind—to beat the competition and win a medal, preferably a gold one. As spectators watch the games in person or on television, they are seeing the result of a process that involved years of preparation. It reminds me of the process that those of us in business experience as we use employee surveys and customer surveys and strive to improve our businesses to achieve “best in class” standing. In this paper I will describe the similarities in the processes of “going for the gold” in the competitive environments of the Olympic Games and business.

First, what is a process? A process involves taking inputs and converting them into outputs. An Olympic athlete exercises and practices various movements and then puts these movements together to create a performance. An organization repetitively takes its resources and uses them in a reliable, consistent way to achieve its business goals. Many of the most successful organizations engage in business process management (BPM), a structured approach to analyze and continually improve fundamental activities and major elements of a company’s operation. According to Mohamed Zairi, author of “Business Process Management: A Boundaryless Approach to Modern Competitiveness,” an article published in the Business Process Management Journal, BPM is an approach to competitiveness that involves a continuous focus on customers, quality improvement, and striving for best in class standing. Utilizing BPM can help an organization go for the gold and achieve business success.

A person does not become an Olympic athlete overnight. Likewise, a company typically does not achieve a best in class ranking after just a year or two of BPM efforts. Instead, athletes and corporations alike must continually work to improve their performance. They compete against themselves as well as others. Olympians continually try to exceed their most recent performances—whether that means getting to the end of a track in a shorter amount of time or performing a triple axel with more grace. Organizations implement action plans to improve their survey results so that their profits increase.

Olympians also compare their performance with others in their sport. It does not matter how quickly you can swim across the Olympic pool if another athlete can accomplish the same task in 1.3 fewer seconds. For a business, while it is great when we exceed last year’s accomplishments, we also want to outperform our competitors. That is where benchmarking comes in. Benchmarking enables a company to know how they rank in overall performance, as well as in specific topics and/or items on a survey, as compared to competitors in their industry. Without benchmarking data, it is impossible to know whether our performance is best in class or simply average.

Another important similarity between Olympic athletes and organizations striving for the gold is outside help. Athletes do not work alone. They have trainers and coaches to guide and motivate them. This support is invaluable to the Olympian as it provides them with constructive feedback to help them improve and encouragement when they feel like giving up. Organizations also benefit from outside help. In an article titled “Best Practices in Business Process Redesign: An Overview and Qualitative Evaluation of Successful Redesign Heuristics,” H.A. Reijers and S. Liman Mansar stress the importance of outsourcing. They state that outsourcing business processes, such as employee and customer surveys, is a more efficient way of performing the same work and it has the added benefit of lower cost. Outsourcing surveys to an established firm enables an organization to draw on the expertise of specialists in research design and statistical analysis. Outsourcing results in surveys that have greater validity and reliability and results that are statistically sound while keeping costs low.

Finally, both Olympians and organizations need to focus on continuous improvement. Many athletes compete in the Olympic Games more than once. Even if an athlete won the coveted gold medal, it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of success at the next Olympic Games if that athlete does not continue to improve his or her performance. You can be sure that the other athletes will be focusing on improving their performances and so each athlete must practice and work toward improving their time or technique to win in the next competition. Similarly, it is not good enough for a company to conduct one employee or customer survey and then take action on the results. Instead, conducting surveys and engaging in other components of the quality improvement process must be ongoing. I recommend conducting surveys on at least an annual basis because employee and customer behavior is dynamic—it is constantly changing. Therefore, in order to have the knowledge you need to implement changes leading to best in class performance, you must stay on top of these changes in behavior.

Now let’s look at the results of using BPM by examining an organization that has been engaging in it for five years. Knowing that employee engagement drives customer satisfaction, which in turn drives financial performance, this organization, a staffing company, decided to begin conducting employee surveys as part of their BPM efforts. To make the best use of their resources, the staffing company outsourced their survey to the National Business Research Institute (NBRI), a firm specializing in employee and customer surveys. The staffing company decided to use a survey instrument with 62 items. Both descriptive and inferential statistical analyses were performed on the collected data. In addition, the results were benchmarked against other companies in the same North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) Code. These analyses enabled the company to monitor their improvement, identify drivers of their employee’s behavior, and gauge how they compare with their competitors.

When the staffing company conducted their second employee survey, they were pleased to see their investment in the improvement process had reaped tremendous results. The overall survey results, as well as each survey topic and item, are rated using percentile rankings. The industry average is at the 50th percentile, and the rankings are classified as follows:

  • 90th-percentile and above = Best in Class performance
  • 75th-100th = Strengths
  • 50th-74th = Opportunities
  • 25th-49th = Weaknesses
  • 1st-24th = Threats

This company experienced a 600% increase in the number of topics ranking in the strengths category! The item analysis revealed they had gone from only three items in the strengths category in their first survey to 29 in the strengths category in their second survey! The company’s executives were also very pleased to see great improvement in their overall benchmarked rankings. The results of their first survey indicated they were at the 64th-percentile overall; a good ranking that placed them 14 percentiles above the industry average. The results of their next survey placed them at the 74th-percentile overall! In addition, because of their remarkable improvement they won the Circle of Excellence Award from NBRI.

While these are excellent results, the staffing company is not ready to sit back and be satisfied with their accomplishments. Instead, they are pressing on to achieve greater success and to go for the gold. Their most recent survey revealed positive, statistically significant trends in numerous survey items ranging from five-percentile improvements all the way up to 17-percentile improvements! The inferential statistics performed on the most recent data are currently being used by this company in their quest for the gold. An inferential test called the Root Cause Analysis revealed three key drivers of their employee’s perceptions as follows:

  • Executive/Corporate management wants to know what employees think.
  • I trust my division manager.
  • Executive/Corporate management is held accountable for their behavior.

These three items are driving 36% of the items on their most recent employee survey. The company’s goal during this next year is to improve their employees’ perceptions on these drivers which will result in an improvement in employee perceptions on over a third of the items on their survey. Like the Olympic athlete who acts on the recommendations of trainers and coaches, organizations must take action when they receive survey results. As the staffing company continues to regularly take part in this improvement process, they will continue to see their survey scores, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and profits increase and they will win the gold—a best in class ranking!

If you would like to learn more about how NBRI can help your company go for the gold and achieve a best in class ranking, call us today at 800-756-6168.

Dr. Cynthia K. S. Reed, Ph.D.
Organizational Psychologist
National Business Research Institute