Measuring Employee Engagement with A.I. and Machine Learning

A small number of companies have begun developing new tools to measure employee engagement without requiring workers to fill out surveys or sit through focus groups. HR professionals and engagement experts are watching to see if these tools gain traction and lead to more effective cultural and retention strategies.

Two of these companies—Netherlands-based KeenCorp and San Francisco’s Cultivate—glean data from day-to-day internal communications. KeenCorp analyzes patterns in an organization’s (anonymized) email traffic to gauge changes in the level of tension experienced by a team, department or entire organization. Meanwhile, Cultivate analyzes manager email (and other digital communications) to provide leadership coaching.

These companies are likely to pitch to a ready audience of employers, especially in the technology space. With IT unemployment hovering around 2 percent, corporate and HR leaders can’t help but be nervous about hiring and retention. When competition for talent is fierce, companies are likely to add more and more sweeteners to each offer until they reel in the candidates they want. Then there’s the matter of retaining those employees in the face of equally sweet counteroffers.

That’s why businesses utilize a lot of effort and money on keeping their workers engaged. Companies spend more than $720 million annually on engagement, according to the Harvard Business Review. Yet their efforts have managed to engage just 13 percent of the workforce.

Given the competitive advantage tech organizations enjoy when their teams are happy and productive—not to mention the money they save by keeping employees in place—engagement and retention are critical. But HR can’t create and maintain an engagement strategy if it doesn’t know the workforce’s mindset. So companies have to measure, and they measure primarily through surveys.

Today, many experts believe surveys don’t provide the information employers need to understand their workforce’s attitudes. Traditional surveys have their place, they say, but more effective methods are needed. They see the answer, of course, in artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning (ML). 

Only Pieces of the Puzzle

One issue with surveys is “they only capture a part of the information, and that’s the part that the employee is willing to release,” said KeenCorp co-founder Viktor Mirovic. When surveyed, respondents often hold back information, he explained, leaving “unsaid” data that has an effect similar to “unheard” data.

“I could try to raise an issue that you may not be open to because you have a prejudice,” Mirovic added. If tools don’t account for what’s left unsaid and unheard, he argued, they provide an incomplete picture.

As an analogy, Mirovic described studies of combat aircraft damaged in World War II. By identifying where the most harm occurred, designers thought they could build safer planes. However, the study relied on the wrong data, Mirovic said. Why? Because “they only looked at the planes that came back.” The aircraft that presumably suffered the most grievous damage—those that were shot down—weren’t included in the research.

Engagement Surveys Have Their Place

None of this means traditional surveys surveys don’t provide value. “I think the traditional methods are still useful,” said Alex Kracov, head of marketing for Lattice, a San Francisco-based workforce management platform that focuses on small and mid-market employers. “Sometimes just the idea of starting to track engagement in the first place, just to get a baseline, is really useful and can be powerful.”

For example, Lattice itself recently surveyed its 60 employees for the first time. “It was really interesting to see all of the data available and how people were feeling about specific themes and questions,” he said. Similarly, Kracov believes that newer methods such as pulse surveys—which are brief studies conducted at regular intervals—can prove useful in monitoring employee satisfaction, productivity and overall attitude.

Whereas surveys require an employee’s active participation, the up-and-coming tools don’t ask them to do anything more than their work. When KeenCorp’s technology analyzes a company’s email traffic, it’s looking for changes in the patterns of word use and compositional style. Fluctuations in the product’s index signify changes in collective levels of tension. When a change is flagged, HR can investigate to determine why attitudes are in flux and then proceed accordingly, either solving a problem or learning a lesson.

“When I ask you a question, you have to think about the answer,” Mirovic said. “Once you think about the answer, you start to include all kinds of other attributes. You know, you’re my boss or you’ve just given me a raise or you’re married to my sister. Those could all affect my response. What we try to do is go in as objectively as possible, without disturbing people as we observe them in their natural habitats.”

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