Let’s face it, most of us in Business love a good benchmark.  Knowing where we sit against others is as much a part of the human condition as secretly watching reality-TV shows – sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.

Looking back, I have been associated with a number of companies that have collected large amounts of data for a living and moved into the realms of Big Data Analytics, Benchmarking, and the highly fashionable Artificial Intelligence.  ‘Hi, we’re doing this really cool thing with AI right now and….’ Is an attention grabber.

The Human Resources function is no stranger to data collection.  Surveys, performance reviews, and system-captured statistics have been around for a while and the tools to mine this data are getting better by the day.  However, if we look through the marketing hype from the suppliers who have built their benchmarking databases, their usefulness seems to be in conflict with a few things that are part of today’s business environment.   Here are a few inconsistencies that have popped up on my radar….

#1:  People are uniquely individual?

Pick a concept that involves people in the workplace.  Motivation.  Performance.  Engagement.

Science keeps pointing to the fact that each one of us is totally unique and different, and the way we perceive the world around us is almost totally unique.  Two good friends can leave the very same conversation with wildly varying accounts of what was spoken about.  Even more interesting, the discovery of Neuroplasticity means we can actually change anything we want about ourselves if we choose to.  Yep, we can become very different people in double-quick time if we just made the decision to do so.


Furthermore, if the science is true and most of our behavior is driven by ‘unconscious’ variables that we still don’t fully understand, it supports the notion that human behavior is rarely static and predictable.  However, most employee engagement surveys rely on this as a foundation.  Survey questions are in the form of quantitative measures that don’t capture context, nor do they capture a vast number of other things that could contribute to a person’s state of ‘engagement’ on survey day.

So what we are left with is a set of Employee Engagement Benchmarks that lack context, contain incomplete information, and aggregate everyone into a convenient set of segments that may or may not represent the basis for Leadership decision-making.

#2:  Companies are uniquely individual?

In many ways, companies remind me of a river.  Whilst from a distance a river might look the same day to day, it is actually constantly shifting, taking on slightly different characteristics according to various influencing factors.  At any given time, a company will have a large number of things that combine to create a totally unique entity.   The risk profile of the Board, the balance sheet, technical competence, growth plans, Vision, price… the list is almost endless.  Even if a Leadership Team closed down a company, and started it again the following day with exactly the same employees, products, and services, it would be different in ways that would be mostly unnoticeable.  But it would be different.

However when it comes to benchmarking information, data tends to be aggregated and segmented by industry/company size/turnover/location, and possibly a few others.  What is not taken into consideration is the large number of variables that are possibly far more important to benchmark against, which are not easy to collect and therefore never get collected.

So what we are left with is a set of Employee Engagement Benchmarks comparing apples to oranges or more commonly apples with mobile phones.

#3: We live in a VUCA world?

In Business, we have been taught to think linearly (targets and budgets are perfect examples), however very rarely will anyone ever experience a straight line between two points these days, thanks to our friend VUCA.  Barely a business article is written now that doesn’t include some sort of reference to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.  The evidence is certainly there, with whole new industries, ways of working, and worker preferences continuously emerging.

What I am struggling to reconcile therefore is, if things are changing so dramatically, at what point do benchmarking comparisons become a distraction?   Even Industry Classification, something that has always seemed relatively static, is becoming a blurry concept.  What industry is AirBnB in?

So what is my point?

Don’t get me wrong, surveys are useful as long as they are conducted in a way that accounts for their short comings.  We use and recommend surveys as part of an overall ‘continuous connection’ strategy using Employee Life (www.employeelife.com) as the basis.  However, we have also moved beyond the fascination with benchmarks to ensure they don’t drive the types of decisions that halt momentum.   Measure what matters to the company at the time, and benchmark against yourself over time.  This is possibly the most useful benchmarking we have found.

External benchmarks are convenient and do offer an interesting talking point, however, the main winner seems to be the companies who are generating revenue by providing access to them.  Perhaps a better investment is to focus more on those things that are important to the company (rather than someone telling you what is important to your company), and crawl all over your unique Expectation V Experience equation.  This is different for every company (or at least it should be).

Jason Buchanan – General Manager; Insights & Innovation

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *