4 June 2001
As you will have noticed over the past few weeks, we live in an age of opinion polls and focus groups. It seems that the guiding principle for New Labour is to keep everyone onside and to annoy as few as possible. And while opinion remains divided about how accurate polls are, what better way to test prospective policies than with a few well-structured focus groups?`But what impact are all these focus groups having outside of politics, besides making a few market researchers and psephologists very rich? Well for one thing, it seems that the desire to be liked is contagious. Across all organisations, including law firms, leaders and managers are consumed with fear - not of the competition but of themselves. Leaders of all types are under the spell of a desperate desire to be liked, if not loved, by their employees. This stems partly from the recognition that there is a severe shortage of skills, or at least of people with the right skills. Old-school macho management is a thing of the past because staff have become a scarce resource to be nurtured and not annoyed. Staff at all levels need to be kept sweet, because if they aren't then they will up sticks and move to where they feel better cared for.`While the mood of the staff within a small firm may be easily identified by a quick 'walk-and-talk' session, when it comes to a major firm with thousands of employees in numerous locations, finding out what they think is a more difficult proposition.`The most commonly employed method for gauging the mood of staff is the staff survey, which usually takes the shape of a hastily drawn-up questionnaire sent to all employees. The apparent advantages of this approach are that it is quick and easy. Anyone can knock up what looks like a reasonable survey and by sending it to all employees you are guaranteed to get an accurate picture of what the corporate body is feeling. Best of all, for the cost of a few photocopies staff get the impression that they are being listened to. Everyone's a winner right? Well no. If you want a pile of unusable forms back from the few employees who are unhappy enough to want to rant about it on a questionnaire, then this may be the route to take. You may even be able to kid yourself that you're kidding the staff that they are being listened to. But the biggest misconception is that sending a bad survey to everyone is better than conducting a proper survey using a well-constructed sample.`Remember all those market researchers who are getting rich? There's a reason for that - the main one being that if you want worthwhile data that can be easily translated into meaningful information, getting the questionnaire's design right is crucial. And there is a science to questionnaire design.`In the use of focus groups even greater care is needed. Most managing partners or chief executives could easily summon together a 'representative' group of employees and get them to talk about how rosy everything is in the corporate garden. But the key to effective focus groups is listening effectively and independently. And let's face it, who is likely to sit opposite their managing partner and talk freely and honestly about what a hole the firm is to work in?`In one sense it is irrelevant what type of staff survey one conducts. Staff relations and the overall mood of an organisation run deeper than a few questions once a year. It is well documented that firms are most likely to resort to employee research when things are going well. It becomes more a tool for improving employee relations than for monitoring them. In firms where employees are content, research can reinforce that contentment and human resource managers can use results of research to communicate just how happy everyone is. Not quite so many firms are as keen on employee research when times are bad. The truth may hurt, but it's not nearly as painful as negative employee feedback.
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