Building a Culture First Company with Engagement Data: An Interview with Craig Forman

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Historically, companies have looked at engagement surveys as a formality.

Today, things are different.

Companies that want to stay ahead of the curve view engagement surveys as a tool for the strategic development of their organization.

I recently interviewed Craig Forman, Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp, to learn more about how he helps organizations use this data to become a more responsive and agile organization.

How do you think about your role as a People Scientist?

"The whole role of the people scientist comes from the vision of our CEO, Didier Elzinga.

In a lot of companies, there is usually just one person, an organizational psychologist, who is focused on understanding the health of the culture. What if this knowledge was embedded within the entire organization? That is the premise of our people science team.

And we’re living this at Culture Amp. We have people science embedded into each aspect of our business - the operations side, the product side, and the customer side.

On the product side, there are people scientists embedded within that team to think about survey design and structure. On the ops side, we have a people scientist to help us think about our own internal survey results and organizational culture. And then we have people scientists on our customer team who help our clients design and make sense of their surveys.

As a people scientist on the customer side, I support our West Coast enterprise team. I help bring in new business and take care of our current clients. I often work side-by-side with our salespeople to share our philosophy around how we built the survey and how we think about engagement with prospective customers. And then I also work with current clients. We assist them  on survey design and then, when the results come in, we facilitate a conversation with them on how to understand the data and think about what to do next.

Aside from that, I also attend and speak at conferences on behalf of Culture Amp and promote our “culture first” ideologies."

For a lot of your customers, this may be the first time they are gathering engagement data. Can you tell me about their journey? How does their relationship with data evolve?

"The journey begins before they work with us. Usually there’s an event that occurs - either there’s a new leader that comes in or there’s a situation that occurs that stirs the attention of the C-level.

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With Universal Music Group, for example, they brought in a new EVP of Human Resources, Gautam Srivastava. When Gautam came on, he realized that the team couldn’t really drive initiatives without having good data to understand what’s going on. So running an engagement survey was an initial step towards making that happen. (To learn more about the experiences at Universal Music Group, check out this Culture Amp webinar and post.)

This is a very healthy approach. It’s hard to keep a pulse on your organization through conversations alone - especially if you are beyond 75 or 100 people. If you want to drive change in your org, it’s helpful to be able to go to your leadership and say, “Here’s what we’re seeing, here are the numbers to back it up, and this is what we’re suggesting.”

Once we begin working together and the survey results come in, there is sometimes a bit nervousness around what information to share. In general, I meet my clients where they are and I try to help them see the value of sharing the best data to support the changes needed to improve organizational culture, which, I believe, has a direct impact on overall success.

That said, usually after their first or second survey, most clients start to share the data more broadly. They realize that the process is not threatening and that it can be very helpful to get this information out there so that change can happen more quickly. They also realize that it’s a strong tool that helps them look forward, not backwards, and that there is a lot to be gained through building a continuous feedback loop."

What have you noticed about the progression of companies that have run many cycles of engagement surveys?

"One of my colleagues, Fresia Jackson, is working on a maturity curve for organizations based on their engagement strategy. What we’ve noticed so far is that there tend to be three stages in this evolution.

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Annual Survey Stage: The first stage is a company that is looking to run an engagement survey once a year, usually as part of their standard HR reporting function. This type of company doesn’t really do anything with the results, it’s just something that they do as part of their organizational compliance.

Semi-Annual Stage: The second stage is when a company may run two big surveys a year and then run smaller surveys to evaluate initiatives that emerged from their larger surveys.

Continuous Collect-Analyze-Act Stage: The most evolved company is one that runs surveys as part of a more strategic approach. At this stage, it’s not about the frequency of surveys, it’s about running the right kind of surveys when needed. It’s about implementing the cycle of collect-analyze-act on a continuous basis.

One thing to note here is that companies shouldn’t be worried about “survey fatigue.” They should be worried about “lack of action fatigue.” If companies don’t act on the info gathered from these surveys, then people quickly become dismissive. They either don’t take the surveys or they don’t give strong data.

Again, what’s key here is that we don’t push companies along this path. We meet them where they are.

For some companies, transitioning to a tool like ours is a big move, primarily for two reasons:

Speed: This is a gamechanger. With our tool, you can run a survey and then talk to your leadership about the results the very next day. Historically, it could take months to analyze and share engagement results.

Real-time Feedback: You now have real-time data about your company that you can act on today. It’s like putting on a FitBit. Without it, you may have an idea of how many steps you took that day, but you don’t know for sure. In the same way, you now have real, granular data that tells you about the sentiment of your employees. You can choose to ignore it or not. But it’s there. Now you have decisions to make on how to act on that data.

Overall, we’ve realized that the most powerful thing that happens when companies start using our tool is that they have begun an important journey. This is the journey of becoming more responsive to the sentiments and needs of their people - which ultimately influences the performance of their organization.

*********Learn more about how Culture Amp thinks about people data at the upcoming panel at General Assembly, “A Sexy Data Approach to People Ops,” on June 6th. Register here.