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When preparing for the Gartner ReimagineHR Conference, I started to ponder about the concept of Continuous Listening and different shapes and forms it seems to take.

To state the scene, a comment from Gartner: “Many organizations continue to utilize a formal engagement survey conducted every one to three years as the primary means of gathering feedback from employees. Therefore, they have difficulty tracking the effect of more frequent changes in perception as their employees react to organizational changes and external market events. This traditional, somewhat rigid approach remains important, but is increasingly being augmented by indirect and inferred feedback tools to capture ongoing employee perceptions, feelings, opinions and ideas.”

In other words, there is a call for getting feedback from employees more frequently than once a year. Most organizations appear to be turning to technology in order to deliver this without necessarily assessing and defining clearly, what they are trying to achieve. In addition, a technology in itself won’t help change people’s mindset or behaviors – or help the organization deliver its strategy. Technology is and always will be only an enabler or a vehicle that help to get insight to inform decision making. You can’t delegate the responsibility of decision-makers, managers and leaders to technology. Even though Artificial Intelligence is rapidly increasing in popularity, it won’t remove the element of human touch. There it is, a representative of a technology provider said it! Technology by itself doesn’t make the world a better place!

Let’s try to unpick Continuous Listening.

First of all, I’ve noticed that most organizations have just replaced the word “Survey” with “Listening”. Surveys are perceived to be quite old-fashioned and static, whereas “Listening” is active and participative. Problem solved! If your organization has recently introduced a new employee listening program or strategy, replace the word “Listening” with “Survey” and see if you can spot any change from the past! The main difference might be the introduction of the word ‘Continuous’, but let’s get back to that later.

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In my opinion, employee listening should be perceived as broader than just surveys; it should encompass all occasions where employees can provide feedback, informally and formally, both through technology (e.g. surveys, blogs, chatrooms etc.) and in-person (e.g. 1to1 discussions with line manager, team and town hall meetings). Furthermore, any listening exercise is just a means to an end and won’t have any impact until somebody has reacted to the feedback. Optimally, listening should lead to a dialog or interaction between individuals that facilitates change that, in turn, accelerates strategy realization.

Some ‘listening’ advice:

  • Make an inventory of all your listening activities, be as inclusive as possible
  • Clarify the purpose of each activity: What is it for? Who is responsible? How is impact measured?
  • If there are overlaps, can you redefine the purpose of some initiatives or cancel them altogether?
  • If there are gaps, assess what is the optimal way of gathering the missing feedback. Keep in mind that a survey is not necessarily always the best option! Perhaps you can leverage some local initiatives that have been proven effective?

Secondly, when does listening become continuous? If we assume listening = survey, you could argue that even an annual survey repeated regularly is continuous! Joking aside, the main motivation for becoming more ‘continuous’ is to be able to gather employee reactions and feedback in a more timely manner, as per Gartner’s quote above, and to push the responsibility for listening further down in the organizational hierarchy. In other words, moving from organizational lead top-down exercises to bottom-up team/employee lead initiatives.

However, you need to be mindful with the word ‘continuous’ as it is quite ambiguous and open for interpretation. A client of mine, who is currently embarking on a new Listening journey, had been floating the word, without actually defining what was meant with it. The result was that some senior leaders thought that the organization was introducing an Always-on approach, where employees would be able to voice their opinions and give feedback at any given time and on a topic that is important to them. It is fair to say, the actual plan wasn’t actually going that far…

Some ‘continuous’ advice

  • If you plan to transfer the responsibility of listening (read surveys) to managers, it should happen as a part of a wider change program. What are you expecting managers to do differently and why? How should they approach listening and for what purpose?
  • If you’ve done your job properly in defining your listening activities and their purpose, that should also advice you the frequency required. As mentioned before a survey itself doesn’t change anything, it is what happens next.
  • When launching a new listening or continuous listening approach clearly communicate what it is all about and for what purpose. Clarify what you expect from different stakeholders (leaders, managers, employees) and support you would offer.

In conclusion, every organization is currently doing continuous listening, in one form or another. The difference is that some organizations do it in a structured way with a strategic purpose and others don’t. Which group does your organization belong to?


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