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Consultants – do we need them?

January 13, 2016

Are consultants worth their fees? Should you try to run employee engagement surveys in house or is it better to use a specialist consultant? On the face of it, running an employee survey doesn’t seem too difficult. Put together a questionnaire, print and distribute it around the business. Get someone in HR to analyse the results and that’s it, job done.

A good number of companies who approach us for help have done just this. But they have usually found that things didn’t work out quite as they expected. The reasons tend to relate to one or more of the following

  • Lack of anonymity / confidentiality: Employees are usually nervous of completing any questionnaires which don’t protect their responses from being seen by people within the organisation. And if they do complete the survey they will be very careful of what they say, fearing that their views may be seen as unwelcome criticism. So the results are often bland and meaningless. An external specialist can guarantee that every individual’s answers remain entirely confidential. Responses are more honest and far more people tend to participate.
  • The questions are leading, ambiguously phrased or inappropriate: phrasing questions is not always easy. Sometimes they aren’t clear or relevant to the respondent. They can be too long or may contain more than one question. They can suggest the answer you expect or would like. Or they may not address the issue you are concerned about. For example, what questions should be asked to find out how engaged people are? Specialists have few such problems – this is a core skill for them
  • Lack of suitable software: Although there is no shortage of survey software for setting up and analysing questionnaires, there are few programs that are both flexible enough and user friendly to cater for the idiosyncrasies of most organisations. Most consultants have found this to be the case and have developed their own purpose built software.
  • Lack of comparative data: Generating scores is one thing, but interpreting them is another. So x% of your respondents agree that they are fairly paid, or well trained, or that they think communications within the company is effective. Is that good, bad or indifferent result? Survey consultants usually have a database of survey item scores which they can make available for this purpose.
  • They take too long to analyse: This issue crops up frequently: giving a set of survey data to an inexperienced person – who often has a day job to attend to – can mean a lengthy wait. And when they do produce a report, it can be a difficult task to interpret and present the data in a way which makes sense to an audience with only limited time and interest. Speed is now a priority for most businesses and a good consultant will be able to provide basic results within a day or so of completion and a full report in no more than a week or two.
  • Reporting without impact or commitment to action: Another issue that crops up frequently is that survey reports sink without trace. They have little or no impact because they are presented badly and there is, as a consequence, little or no follow-up. So employees become cynical and less willing to participate in future surveys. In such circumstances this can actually have a negative effect on the organisation, sending a negative message about the willingness of management to listen and respond to employee opinion. Again, presenting results for maximum impact and generating commitment to action is what consultants are there to do. If they don’t, they will go out of business.
  • Uncertainty about what to do next: An experienced survey consultant is like a GP carrying out a medical checkup: he or she can use the data to pinpoint where action is needed and what approaches are likely to be most helpful. Whether it’s reporting back to the workforce, running action planning workshops or helping to identify the priorities they should have the experience and expertise which may not be available in the typical HR department.

Ultimately the choice will boil down to one question, I guess: what’s the most cost-effective way to do the job. Our clients seem to have no doubts – a specialist is quicker and much the most effective way to measure engagement in any organisation

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