September’s MTT meeting, hosted by Bristows, was about applying digital tools and methodologies to measure and manage organisational culture. The session opened with a discussion between Ian Jeffery, CEO of Lewis Silkin and Thomas Davies, CEO and founder of Temporall, which uses cultural analytics to help business leaders measure organisational health and develop a high-performance workplace culture. This was followed by a practical presentation by Penny Newman, chief people officer, on how Lewis Silkin uses employee engagement software to keep leaders in touch with the pulse of the firm and create a genuine listening culture – “you said, so we did”.

Culture, engagement and organisational capability

Davies’ former role as co-founder of Google Cloud involved working with senior decision-makers on implementation, integration and change management. He realised that successful digital transformation depended on organisational capability. He was inspired by Julian Birkenshaw’s book “Fast Forward” to develop Cultural Workbench, a platform that identifies the organisational characteristics and attributes that drive companies forward and enables them to develop the right cultural mindset to thrive in the digital economy.

Davies observed that world’s most successful companies don’t have cultural programmes, teams or champions. A company’s culture is part of its DNA; reflected in its values, behaviours, processes and systems. For example, Microsoft is about growth, Salesforce is about customers, and Google is about innovation.

Jeffery drew a distinction between culture and engagement.  “While culture is described as the way we do things around here, engagement is measured by the degree of discretionary effort that a typical worker will put into their tasks”. Davies refuted this standard business definition and focused on organisational intelligence.

Uncovering cultural data

Organisational intelligence is about data-driven communication moving businesses from data to insight to action. Googlegeist, Google’s annual employee survey, was regularly reflected in 90-day action plans, which were published internally – when an executive would commit to specific action within a specific timeframe.

While surveys are valuable, there are ways of uncovering more immediate cultural data. Davies recommended combining multiple frameworks and data points. While surveys producing quantitative and qualitative data at regular intervals, communication systems are sources of real-time insights and platforms for meaningful dialogue. He referenced Slack, Microsoft Teams, G Suite and Workplace by Facebook. “You have to meet people where they work. Then you are not interrupting them, and they are more likely to react naturally,” he said. Davies advocates using mobile apps for cultural interaction.

Data from enterprise systems – for operational activities, i.e. where people go to do their day-to-day work – provide an opportunity for network analysis and uncovering (potential) correlations between organisational relationships and cultural influence. Of course, when it comes to sentiment analysis, it is important to aggregate and anonymise data.

Culture underpins brand

Why has culture moved up organisations’ strategic priority list? Like cyber security, culture wasn’t on the agenda a few years ago. While a great culture creates value – as Microsoft, Google and Salesforce, a cultural ‘breach’ can also destroy shareholder value. And major brands have been damaged by perceptions of their executive and employee culture, exemplified by the fallout of the global “me too” movement in the past year.

Consequently, executive boards are focusing on cultural initiatives. Davies emphasises that this is not about top management sitting down with consultants and writing values on post-its. Culture needs to be infused into processes and systems – and reinforced by hiring the right people. It’s also about two-way engagement and gaining cultural insights through dialogue rather than interruption. Davies recommended working with systems like Slack and Workplace because every day working practices and behaviours reveal and reinforce cultural values.

Jeffery added that communication systems are platforms for senior management to connect directly with the business and keep abreast of employees’ issues and concerns – and take action where necessary. Davies agreed, adding that employees disengage unless they feel that their voices are heard. “Ultimately we encourage a human systems approach: taking an intelligent view of the whole organisation, but also equipping senior leaders with data and insight that allows them – as individuals and in teams – to make better decisions.”

From data to engagement

Penny Newman, Lewis Silkin’s chief people officer, demonstrated how the firm uses software tools to promote a listening culture, facilitate employee engagement and satisfaction while ensuring that senior executives remain connected with the rest of the business and use cultural insights to inform decision-making.

Lewis Silkin has been ranked in the Sunday Times ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list for nine years but maintaining a high level of employee satisfaction is an ongoing challenge as the firm continues to grow. The firm was conducting regular Best Companies employee engagement surveys, but findings were quickly out of date and participation was declining. “Size matters,” said Newman. “As the firm gets bigger, the culture changes and it’s harder to get to know people. We recognised that we would need to do different things to maintain our culture.”

Lewis Silkin’s engagement model is predicated on two-way communication. Objective Manager, the system used for staff appraisals, also gives all employees access to the firm’s business strategy.

Engaged employees understand their firm’s business strategy, listen to the needs of the business, and feel that their voice is heard. But surveys and appraisal tools are not enough to produce a genuine listening culture.  “We wanted something more flexible that didn’t require huge quantities of data crunching,” added Newman.

Another important issue that Davies had touched on earlier, is that culture initiatives need to be cross-discipline rather than owned by human resources.

Measuring real-time engagement

The solution was Peakon – a digital tool that produces an engagement score based on anonymous online survey responses. Survey questions are customised, and the frequency is adjustable. Lewis Silkin sends out about eight questions once a month.

Survey questions and data can be accessed online and via an app, which Newman hoped would increase employee participation. Managers have a dashboard where they can check team results against firm and peer benchmarks.

Peakon recognises that engagement scores vary depending on how long an employee has been with the business: new joiners tend to be highly engaged, but engagement falls away among employees with between three and ten years’ service after which it increases again. So, teams with new joiners tend to have higher scores.

Segmenting the survey population to target specific groups makes it easier to act on the results within a short timescale and ensure that respondents feel heard. For example, Lewis Silkin asked new joiners about their induction experience and adjusted the process in response to feedback. This reflects Googlegeist’s 90-day action plans.

Newman particularly values the ability to analyse the findings by category, employee type, role etc. Anonymity is protected as you can only drill down to data covering groups of respondents – you cannot check individual responses. And understanding that their concerns are not just heard, but acted on, increases survey participation.

Peakon collects meaningful data that the firm can act on. For example, negative feedback about IT demonstrated the need for investment in new systems. When 100 people are complaining about something, the executive board can see the case for taking action promptly, explained Newman.

And that’s what they do. Newman reports to the operations board, which has a ‘you said, we did’ strategy. It can be simple, like a request for microwaves in the office kitchen, or related to line management – a workload issue – or executive decision-making around the firm’s strategic plan. Lewis Silkin’s questions are free form, but the results are grouped against internal drivers and Newman and her team respond to comments. However, because Peakon is about anonymity, it cannot address individual issues such as harassment or bullying, which is covered by another initiative – the Guardians Network, whereby employees are trained to offer other workers confidential support about sensitive workplace issues, such as sexual harassment.

The debate was opened up to questions from the floor, which centred on the challenge of applying digital transformation to employee engagement, connecting management and employees in two-way communication to build and reinforce a listening culture, where concerns are heard and acted on.

Joanna Goodman