At first it seems surprising that the history of evolution may have important lessons for employee engagement specialists interested in using surveys. But as it turns out, they do.

The human vocabulary has thousands of words in hundreds of languages. But we are not unique. Scientists continue to show how primate populations have a relatively developed language system too — often using up to 8 or 12 distinct sounds to signal, say, the coming of a specific predator or specific kinds of foods. (Well done, cousins!)

Despite similarities, comparing our two species’ linguistic capabilities is simply nonsensical. And just as one wouldn’t entrust a monkey to write a Shakespearean poem, the evolutionary leaps in the digital world are also calling for something more than standard questionnaires.

Hence the provocation: Do we need someone other than monkeys to run our surveys? (No offense, dear cousins!)

Employee Survey Evolution: From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0

Leaving behind the age of Netscape and ICQ, the cloud-based social media evolution has brought with it an altogether different Internet — Web 2.0. And now that The Economist has identified Facebook as the third largest population in the world, it’s safe to assume that sharing and liking and commenting are here to stay. ‘Collaborative transparency’ may well be the new badge of the fittest.

To be sure, digital technology has allowed for surveys and blogging forums. However, today’s organizations are so large that using these tools for the employee engagement process can be clunky, impersonal, or opaque. While surveys offer quick results, there’s usually a trade-off — paying top dollar for meaningful analysis, or settling for aggregated but disjointed insights.

Furthermore, “survey-fatigue” and the Millennial suspicion of hierarchies and top-down management calls for much flatter and transparent ways of including staff in the decisions that affect them. As Gallup and others have shown, employee engagement levels are on all-time lows, with less than 15% of the global employees feeling highly engaged.

For reasons like these Deloitte’s ‘2016 Global Human Capital Trends’ identified the need for transparent and empowering ‘pulse’ check tools and anonymous feedback systems. “The thoughtful use of such tools can create a true ‘listening environment’ for employees while giving leaders critical insight into what’s working and what’s not working in the company.“

Evolving Engagement Surveys Web 1.0 Web 2.0
1) Inputs One-directional, opaque Participatory, transparent
2) User experience Clunky, rigid, no navigation Nimble, dynamic, navigable
3) Insight Atomized, individualized Networked, socialized
4) Metrics + comments Disjointed, listed Integrated, cross-validated
5) Outputs Aggregated summaries Cohesive collective wisdom

Figure 1: Five evolutionary leaps from 1.0 survey tools to 2.0 digital collaboration platforms

Ethelo’s technology enables decision-makers to embrace these new trends. But what might this shift imply for HR practitioners when it comes to engaging staff in making better company decisions?

At Ethelo we have taken on the evolutionary digital challenge by building a collaborative staff engagement platform.

Decision Evolution: Two Customer Stories

1. Recently we hosted a staff action planning platform for the Department of Public Services and Procurement of the Government of Canada. After internal departmental frictions, senior management saw the need for authentic engagement as critical to the success of any plan moving forward.

The need for unity, trust and transparency was critical. Over 160 anonymized staff participants rated 31 potential staff action items. Each employee posted an average of 7 comments, 8% of provided replies and further discussion. Over 1000 “likes” were generated on almost 60% of all 829 replies and comments. This provided management with quick cross-validated, qualitative insight.

In turn, participant ratings were the input to shortlisting ideal paths of action, among billions of potential plans (2^31). Deploying its algorithm, Ethelo found the optimal overlap between three factors: employee support for action items, and management requirements for feasibility and impact. This allowed management and staff to find the points of common interest, and to seamlessly go beyond a mere list of ‘nice-to-haves’ to an actionable plan of action with high buy-in.


Figure 2: Results page, contrasting lowest and highest supported scenarios

2. Similarly, Vancouver Coastal Health deployed Ethelo to streamline a live ‘Employee Accord’ engagement. After gathering 19 expectations through a world-cafe exercise involving more than 200 staff, senior management needed a highly-supported shortlist of six expectations out of a total of 768 potential combinations.

While in the same room, staff used mobile devices to log into the Ethelo platform and evaluate the recently-collected expectations. Ethelo’s algorithm then turned the ratings into a shortlist that maximized the entire group’s overall unity and support (figure 2). Employees could see the team results in real-time, as well as an open list of general feedback comments which collected 54 ‘likes’.

Rather surprisingly, the listening exercise proved it’s own point: 3 out of the 6 shortlisted expectations had to do with open dialogue, feedback, and two-way communication. As founder of CSR International Wayne Visser put it recently, “Broadcast is out; dialogue in.” (Sorry, cousins!)

Listening to employees, collaborating — or R.I.P.?

To be sure, there are many dimensions associated with employee engagement — one of them being reciprocal forms of communication. Now that the Internet has flattened access to information, more than ever employees who go unheard will quickly find more attractive value offerings elsewhere.

“A new era of real-time, pulse, and anonymous feedback and culture applications has emerged”, says Deloitte’s HR Senior Consultant Josh Bersin. “And the companies that figure out how to tap into this type of feedback will likely rocket ahead in their work practices, employee engagement, customer service, and product innovation.”

Not to say that monkeys don’t talk or team up with each other. But now that collaborative online forums are on the rise, organizations will fare well by taking the Web 2.0 engagement leap.

In fact, it may well be the case that the age of information and competition has given way to the age of interaction and collaboration. Decision-making has evolved.