41 Ways to Probe Employee Engagement

Can I be brutally honest?

Employee Engagement can be a bitch.

If you’ve spent a lot of time addressing this pain in the patootie through shiny little objects for your clients, you would know what I am talking about.

You can either blame it on the Digital Utopia hype piping in the air right now. Or on the enterprise collaboration vendor’s popcorn content which pops in, every now and then, with fantasy stories about the digital workplace, conquering the evil forces of hierarchy, breaking the tyranny of emails, and promising us the ego-less, networked paradise where humans live in harmony with machines of loving grace.

You are blessed with good karma if you engage with clients who get complexity. Because, it is tough, and I say this from the scars of my experience, wearing the hat of a consultant, and juggling the convincing act necessary to drive home the point that ‘Employee Engagement’ cannot be framed through simplistic, linear cause-and-effect models, whose success can be clearly defined through legible, outcome-based targets.

Since you never start from a blank state, (unless you are approaching it for a startup), your work involves treading along an archipelago of systems of disparate maturities, collaborative silos of diverse interests, addressing a battery of dimensions such as governance, employee needs, incumbent organizational processes, and, more importantly, the organizational cultural climate.

In my experience, I've seen a lot of value in approaching "Employee Engagement" through a series of safe-to-fail probes. When you are dealing with complex systems, theory recommends experimentation as the best way to introduce small-scale interventions, which can quietly push the boundaries of what is possible when employees feel empowered inside an organization.

As the wise men at the Cognitive Edge describe it eloquently in their blog,
"Safe-fail Probes are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles, in small and safe-to-fail ways, the intent of which is to approach issues in small, contained ways to allow emergent possibilities to become more visible. The emphasis, then, is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways."
As you track the incoming feedback for each probe, you tweak and adopt them appropriately. Complexity theory recommends that safe-fail probes are best done in small groups, preferably through a facilitation process. While some of these probes emerged from my collaboration consulting and implementation experience, the critical ones were forged from the crucible of minds that were a part of many virtual facilitation processes and communities which deeply care about employee engagement in Cognizant. In short, I don’t own these ideas. (I find it strange to believe that one can entertain such a thought with a straight face)

I am indebted to the wise stewardship building the Cognizant Community, who've let us play along in an open, fertile ecosystem to explore and test ideas, no matter how quirky they may seem, inside our official enterprise social network.

We have a long way to go. So,let's get started. 

1) Can you approach employee engagement as a social experiment? Design social experiments to test hypotheses around emerging workplace collaboration principles such as “Work-Out-Loud”. Once you are clear on the hypothesis to be tested, spell out the rules of engagement. Rules should define the context at which people can walk in, and walk out. It would be better, if rules remain time-bound and evolve based on incoming feedback. At the end of the day, members benefit from the engagement, and you will learn a lot about your community.

Employee Collaboration Technologies

2) Can you create an internal time marketplace where employees offer x% of their working hours for sale? When your community gets comfortable with the idea of time marketplace, can you try time-bidding for the most knowledge contributor in a particular domain?

3) Every time you deploy a new collaboration software with benedictions from the senior leadership team, can you validate the assumption that just because a particular tool has been deployed for a specific function, the same tool is going be used for the same function?

4) Can you examine the choice architecture of collaboration technologies in your work place? If there are multiple tools for enterprise communication, do they empower the users with multiplicity of choices or disempower them with high transaction cost of micro-decisions involved in every communication? 

5) When you need to communicate a message across multiple, internal channels, are you posting one single message across multiple channels together or duplicating one message posted in a particular channel across the remaining ones? Why is the latter scenario more prevalent than former in today’s digital workplace?

6) Cloud based Enterprise collaboration vendors often fail to understand that addition of new capabilities, made easier by the forces of the Cloud, can, sometimes, change the fundamental ways in which technology facilitates work. How often do you assess if new, incremental capabilities are affecting your integrated collaborative work experience?

7) When legacy organizations wake up one day to realize how much they are behind the curve, there is a temptation to jump miles ahead, without deeply understanding the implications involved. Before you make a sweeping jump from your almost defunct Intranet to a “Mobile First” social collaboration tool, can you examine if your workplace environment is ready with post-procurement adoption necessary to adapt the workplace infrastructure within the context of the work experience you desire for? 

8) It may be a surprise for you to know that some of the leading enterprise collaboration vendors in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Social Software in the Workplace also treat the mobile experience as a subset of the desktop collaborative work experience, with differentiated user experiences, dictated by the triumvirate OSes (Android, Apple iOS, and Windows) driving them. Can you rethink "Mobile First" approach to make it a seamless, inter-operable collaborative work-experience, no matter, how often you switch from your desktop to mobile in your everyday work life?

9) Often early community members, flush with the excitement of a shiny new tool, show signs of ephemeral enthusiasm after attending collaboration training sessions. Is it possible to detect specific superficial gestures, stemming from their mental models which equate adoption as a leadership decision, without deeply considering the work-routines that have to be changed at a fundamental level?

10)Research confirms that it is wiser to work towards making silos permeable, rather than fretting over breaking the silos completely. When you organize events/activities for your employee community, can you make sure that the activities span across different collaborative silos built in the organization? This ensures that the silos slowly lose their grip in the minds of the employees. Remember this. The hardest silos you would confront always reside inside the human mind.

Community Engagement

11) Can you approach community engagement through the metaphor of “Let’s organize a party”? Once the community manager wears the hat of a host of a party which is going to happen forever inside an enterprise social network, it completely changes the way the community manager takes responsibility for the planning of the resources, permissible behavior/etiquette, ice-breaking among new members, cadence of communications, and stage craft necessary to let employees build a shared narrative.

12) "What do you want to bring to the Community?” This question is useful, if you want to prime the community members to share their knowledge in their particular domain of expertise.Can you track the members' response and the subsequent outcomes when you ask this question to those who have already bought in the community agenda?

13) “What do you want to bring to the Community?” This question isn’t going to deliver value if your community members are simply there to test the waters. Every time you feel the urge to ask this question to a potential community member, can you evaluate if he/she understands the community agenda, and has the wherewithal to partake in the shared narrative that will be co-created?

14) Trying to build a community through a confluence of interests, sometimes, can be as futile as wishing for a long-term relationship with your partner, just because you share similar hobbies. Matters of taste and interests are bound to change by the vicissitudes of time. When you receive the brief to build a community based on shared employee interests, can you attempt to map the core beliefs, and values of the community which can withstand the ephemeral nature of interests?

15) When you build a new, organization-wide, enterprise social network, it is often tempting to re-purpose existing intranet content for the enterprise social network. Can you resist this temptation and build an editorial community content approach from the ground up, without the baggage of existing content?

16) In the early days of one executive leadership community I had built for a client, one individual stood out with his vibrant energy and pizzazz. One interaction point was sufficient enough for me to reference him in the community newsletter as “one of the most energetic, active contributor to the community”. And he turned out to be that way. Can you build a commitment hook for early, enthusiastic members to build a positive, reinforcing loop of engagement?

17) Legacy organizations, which are used to formal, sterilized language approved by the communications team, take time to get acquainted with the informal language, including emojis, GIF Memes, and blur-of-consciousness blips common in enterprise social networks. Rather than waging a battle over the political incorrectness of the language to be used inside enterprise social networks, can you try shaping the language of engagement, slowly, albeit in a perpetual-beta mode, based on the way the incumbent organizational culture is adapting with the new ways of working?

18) Can you resist the temptation to use email communication to promote your recently launched enterprise social network? Striving for new ends, through old means is, more often, a recipe for failure.

19) Can you install television screens in your office water cooler spaces where trending conversations and key Influencers can be showcased?

20) Can you keep a watchful eye over instances where conversations driven by individuals exhibit social dynamics viz., a) Contagion - succumbing to diffusion of perspectives/ideas spreading via employee social networks b) Social Learning  - adopting a learning practice after seeing how it helped others at work c) Social Influence - adopting new ideas/behaviors in response to the actions of trusted friends and influencers from proximate social circles adopting them.

21) Can you embrace the power of rituals for driving community engagement? In the communities I've managed, I've conducted welcome rituals for on-boarding new members, and they've worked well to make new members get acquainted and comfortable with each other. Rituals can be either activity or content based. Be it Wiki Thursdays or Socialize Fridays, rituals work brilliantly through the power of accretive meaning, gathered in strength through repetition. 

22) Online communities built to achieve business objectives carry a curious paradox. Businesses are designed to focus narrowly on the outcomes, oblivious to the process which went inside. Communities, on the other hand, gain their valuable currency of engagement through their focus on the process, more than the outcomes. Can you resolve this paradox by approaching every outcome-driven activity as an incremental action, or, better, a ritual, which can be continuously tinkered in perpetual-beta mode? 

23)How often do you narrate the story of your community? Episodic Newsletters can be a powerful means to narrate the genesis story, the key protagonists who've invested in the vision of the community, and how the community broke through their barriers, thanks to the collective strength pooled by the members, to achieve the outcomes they aspired for. 

24) Can you encourage your business development team to collaborate through social networks with various stakeholders in driving RFP proposals? Having gone through the grind of RFP proposal writing through emails and social networks, I can vouch for the efficacy of the latter approach in getting things done with the least amount of organizational friction. 

25) New community members do not take much time to identify the insiders who are treated favorably in a community. Can you conduct a social experiment to find out the signals which give the reassurance of belonging to the insiders of the community? If you are an outsider, say a community consultant working for your client's community, you would need to quickly figure those signals which evoke trust among the insiders.

26) How do you address your community? Do you simply address it by appending your organization's name with the name of your platform vendor or do you coin a unique name which carries subtle, but powerful signals about your workplace culture? 

27) How do you address those who belong to your community? Do you call them as "members",  which carries the baggage of being a part of a larger group or as "partners", which implicitly respects their individual contributions, while remaining participants of the community?

28) Latent knowledge available in the community comes to fore only through an appropriate context stemming from a question asked. Can you foster a climate of trust and engagement, which makes it easier for those who belong to your community ask for help without the fear of judgement? It is the responsibility of the community manager/evangelists to cross-pollinate the responses in eclectic contexts to drive the engines of serendipity.  

29) When you are hiring a community manager from third-party partners, training the community manager isn't enough to make him/her appreciate the subtleties of the organizational culture. Can you facilitate a relationship between the Community Manager and Employee Evangelists, as the latter can be powerful collaborators in bringing a deep understanding of the company culture along with the situational awareness of "local issues", which often elude the attention radar of the community manager?

30) How deeply do you listen to your community members? Apart from addressing the regular needs to curate content and respond to member's queries, do you listen to understand your community members better?  When you are monitoring conversations, do you look for digital body language markers such as tone of the word, the choice of words and metaphors, the defensive stance held in arguments, opinions which are weakly/strongly held in discussions, tendency towards tech-buzz speak, vacuous superlative fillers, and propensity to showcase one's own wares ?

Breaking the E-mail Jinx

31) Can you swallow the uncomfortable truth that you are doing work, even when you are doing emails? Breaking the email jinx requires you to probe into the intrinsic power dynamic which governs emails - Email messages are delivered to you , while you go and fish for relevant information flowing in the streams of enterprise social networks. In the former case, in an ideal scenario, the sender owns the responsibility for communication, while, in the latter, the receiver sets appropriate filters to reduce noise, and improve relevant signals from the streams. How do you construct a social experiment to probe deeper into this power dynamic? This might be little tricky. Can you stop ccing recipients inside your enterprise social network for messages meant for specific individuals and see how quickly they are able to receive the intended information?

32) Can you mine your corporate email servers to map the internal social graph of your employees?

33) Can you mine your email servers to fluidize existing mail archives of your employees inside the enterprise social network? For this experiment to work, you would need to build a customized application which scans the inbox to reproduce conversation threads along with the participants so that the knowledge stocks are converted into knowledge flows, discoverable for the community members to extract and build value.

Harnessing Employee Generated Content

34) Can you curate e-books on topics which have generated the most valuable conversations from experts in your enterprise social network?

35) Can you curate internal newsletters/link blogs based on external content shared by Employee Influencers who have active outside social presence?

36) Can you attempt a massive story telling experiment using enterprise social networks to narrate the people's history of your organization? If you are looking for inspiration, let me recommend Sherlock Holmes IoT experiment and Crazy Frog.

37) If you work in an organization which churns out several PPT slides everyday, can you create a commons involving useful resources such as Powerpoint visual frameworks, colour themes, infographics templates?

38)If you are facing issues of ownership/authority on employee-generated content, can you run a blog storm experiment, which can be executed in six stages, as outlined by Dave?

Executive Engagement

39) Can you build a reverse mentoring equation between the leadership executive and the millennial employee? Reverse mentoring is always a bidirectional value proposition game.The executive shares the wealth of his/her experience, while the millennial shares what's new and relevant,and how it can question assumptions which have been taken for granted.  

40) How can you test the efficacy of the reverse mentoring value proposition without assigning tasks to the executives to measure their digital quotient? Can you try posting an awkward question involving your competitors in Quora to be answered by your executive leadership team? Addressing a can-of-worm question in an external social network tests vital digital skills related to network intelligence, and ambient awareness. 

41) Can you try floating a rumour inside your internal grape vine which would require intervention from the executive leadership team? This quirky challenge will test the vital skills required to communicate effectively across dynamic contexts, through siloed, modern communication channels.

Recommended reading (in context with the probes explored so far) 
1) Why Collaboration is Broken - Serious Insights Report by Daniel W. Rasmus
2) Ritual and the Productive Community - Blog post by Ryan Tanaka
3) Technology and Sacred Spaces - Blog Post by Ryan Tanaka

I would like to thank Sanjay, Prem, Victoria, Jay, Kartic, Lolita, Soundarya, Captain Shantanu for many stimulating conversations inside the Cognizant Yammer Community, which have enriched me in countless ways.