Taking the pulse

by 15 May 2007

It takes a lot of character to undertake an organisational survey when you know the troops arent happy. Teresa Russell talks to some organisations that are not only prepared to listen, but use the negative results to create positive workplaces

Question: What’s worse than not running an organisational survey? Answer: Running anorganisational survey and doing nothing withthe results.

Cardno, Port Stephens Council and the State Revenue Office in Victoria have all run organisational surveys in the past. They have also all recently run surveys using new external providers and have been delighted with the results.

Bill Cadzow, group HR manager for Cardno says his organisation ran a paper-based survey in 2001. The next one was conducted using Full Circle Feedback in September 2006. Cardno, a professional services firm consulting in the areas of physical and social infrastructure, was publicly listed in 2004. It currently has 1600 staff worldwide (1000 in Australia) and has experienced massive growth through acquisitions in the last few years. Growth is expected to continue.

The recent survey was developed from scratch to give the company a baseline for the future. They received a pleasing response rate of 80.6 per cent, a result no doubt assisted by the company’s promise to donate $2 to Young Care (a children’s charity) for every completed survey. “Most people were grateful to have been given a voice, and the expectation of follow-up action was very high,” says Cadzow.

Port Stephens Council has been surveying its 500 staff irregularly for over 10 years. It first used a consultant, but then ran three in-house surveys – the last one in 2003. “When we were doing them in-house, we weren’t doing anything with the results. We honestly didn’t know what to do with the information except to share it with staff,” concedes June Shine, executive manager at the council.

Port Stephens lies north of Newcastle and is home to 60,000 permanent residents, with a large holidaying population. It has been identified as a key growth area in NSW. The council has extensive services similar to many other councils, but also owns and manages holiday parks, a visitor information centre, day care and youth services.

Shine explains that the council uses the Australian Business Excellence Framework (ABEF) for continuous improvement and found Insync Surveys through the National Local Government Business Excellence Network. “They set their surveys across the seven categories of business excellence outlined in the ABEF, using 52 variables,” she says. Shine was quite pleased with the 72 per cent response rate they received in 2006 and 2007, given that little had been done with the results of the previous four surveys. “Management really copped it from staff,” says Shine of the 2006 survey.

State Revenue Office (SRO) is the Victorian Government’s major revenue collector and manager of its first homeowner’s grant and bonus schemes. It employs 440 professional staff in Melbourne and Ballarat. Sally Willox, executive director of organisational development, says that they expected negative results in the first survey they conducted five years ago, because 40 per cent of their functions had just been relocated to Ballarat. “They didn’t hold back,” recalls Willox.

The first three surveys had response rates of 66 per cent, 74 per cent and 56 per cent. In the last of those surveys, Willox says there was an element of survey weariness. They changed to the Hay Group for 2006 and had an 82 per cent response rate.

Choosing a provider

The quality of the responses, as well as the number of staff likely to complete a survey, both greatly improve when a survey is conducted by an external organisation. There are many points of difference in external provider surveys, but all well designed (and reported) surveys show the way forward. Cadzow, Shine and Willox each chose different providers, predominantly based on survey design.

Cadzow liked the Full Circle Feedback survey design because it first rates the importance of an issue to the individual, and then rates the employer’s performance around that issue. This allows focus on specific gaps between expectations and performance. “We thought the key categories where we might have issues would be in the areas of leadership and communication. That turned out to be correct,” he says. The most pleasant surprise was that employee engagement scores were in the “best practice” range.

Shine found the Insync Surveys worked best for Port Stephens Council because it is based on the framework already used by them. The final report gave management just five key recommendations.

Willox changed to the Hay Group because they had a shorter survey that “nailed the issues” they wanted to investigate. However she says it was very important for SRO to benchmark against Hay’s international database on a range of measures including external reputation, resources, culture and innovation, recognition and incentive, leadership and job satisfaction.

Corrective action

One of the biggest issues unearthed by the Cardno survey was leadership development, especially managing conflict in the workplace, giving and receiving feedback and performance management. An emerging leaders program existed for divisional managers, but specific management training is now being developed for all leaders in the company.

As survey results were reported organisationally, divisionally and by business unit, divisional managers were also able to formulate corrective action plans and had to report on progress against specific items at monthly executive meetings.

New financial and HRIS systems had been implemented prior to the survey. Additional training and support were identified as a requirement and were promptly provided, neutralising the issue.

Shine created focus teams of eight people around the areas of concern identified in the Port Stephens Council survey. The concerns were around leadership; communication; employees not feeling valued; the need for a culture of cooperation and trust; remuneration and rewards; and development and advancement opportunities. After networking with 160 external organisations between them, the teams provided 46 simple recommendations and actions that would move the council towards best practice in each of the areas of current concern.

Shine now charts the progress against the recommended actions in a monthly report visible to all staff. “We still sit in the lowest quartile when benchmarked against other organisations nationally and globally. Our aim is to get into the top quartile and become an employer of choice,” says Shine. With just six of the 46 recommendations implemented so far, Shine believes they can achieve this goal over time and will test progress in annual surveys.

Willox runs focus groups at SRO to clarify that poor results are real and not just a problem with perception. She gives two examples. One manager was surprised that his team was unhappy with him. During a focus group, staff said he wasn’t visible enough and didn’t communicate well with them. “He took that on board and now achieves outstanding results,”reports Willox.

Historically, SRO rated poorly on career development opportunities – a result which always confounded management who felt there were lots of opportunities for advancement. During a focus group, Willox realised that staff didn’t hear about promotions and advancements, so they assumed they weren’t happening. “We now report all advancements and promotions on our intranet and the CEO talks about them regularly. The issue was no longer reported as critical in the last survey.

Willox plans on conducting surveys every two years, now that the organisation has stabilised. “That will give us time to see improvements once we try to redress problems,” she says.

Survey advice

“Communicate, communicate, communicate about the survey before running it and once results are received. Link interventions to the survey results and run focus groups to clarify results,” says Willox.

Shine believes it is vital to have results back to staff very quickly. Just two weeks after the last survey, results were fed back to the staff. “You must try to do something with the results, but don’t try to do everything. Just tackle the top four or five issues,” advises Shine.

“When developing the survey, make sure the results will be at the level of detail you require to make the data meaningful. Run a pilot to test the technology and the process. Find an expert provider that will give it respect, confidentiality and objectivity,” concludes Cadzow.