Engagement – a numbers game?

5s-numbers-game-3-638We can only be engaged with so many people.

Robin Dunbar calculated it at around 150, and although there is some argument around how social media impacts that, the core concept of meaningful relationships appears to hold good. We have limited emotional and attentional bandwidth, and we work best when we husband these resources.

Alfie Kohn, another respected academic, adds another angle. In his book, “punished by rewards”, he demonstrates that by giving people who have vocations, those who work for the love of what they do, “hard” financially based goals, we destroy their motivation. (as ably demonstrated by current state approaches to education and health).

Bring the two together, and we underpin what we already sense. Engagement is maximised in relatively small groups doing something they believe in that is bigger than them.

Despite all the efforts we may make, we will not create engagement in the middle of the distribution curve.  Logic and intuition seems to support the notion that in any group, there will be a standard deviation – a small number – around 1 sigma who will be very engaged, and similar number at the other end of the curve who are actively disengaged, with the majority, in the middle of the curve, happy to turn up, but who derive their satisfaction elsewhere,

Which brings me back to Professors Dunbar and Kohn. In a group of 150, If I have 10%, or 15 people highly engaged working with another 120 who are happy to turn up, that makes a good and effective team. I can cope with the 15 who are disengaged, mainly because social norms makes it unlikely they will stay. They are visible. If on  the other hand, my organisation has 15,000 people, then 1500 people are not so visible, and they become an embedded, and energy sapping  part of the culture. Much harder to identify, and even harder to convert or isolate.

I also suspect that the larger the group, the more diluted the sense of common purpose, and the weaker the “glue” that holds the organisation together. Far more likely to become a transactional, financially measured and focused organisation that will wax and wane rapidly. Great for investors with good timing, not so much for those interested in communities.

If we want to get something useful done, we should bear this in mind. Small groups, held together by a common purpose bigger than them, where everybody knows each other. Leadership and Management become intertwined, not  separate “disciplines”. Stuff happens.

In the end, engagement is a consequence of committed groups doing something they believe in with people who support them. It is transformational.

The middle of the curve? – that’s transactional. Little we do can make it transformational. not bad, just something to recognise.

Trying to turn transactional relationships into transformational ones is probably possible in smaller groups. In  large ones. it’s largely a mugs game.

Engagement is built at the outset, It cannot be retrofitted.




Engagement – local heroes

imagesI’m currently doing the North Coast 500. for those not aware, it’s a stunning tour of the North of Scotland, and very much worth checking out.

It’s important to me – Scotland is where I spent the majority of my youth, went to University, and spent time in some of the most stunning scenery in the world. It’s wonderful to be back, and reminds me that most of what we are looking for is right in front of us if we choose to see it; but I digress.

On the way north we called into a distillery ( well, shame not to) and I ended up talking with a number of the staff. It’s a lovely place, that produces iconic whisky, and is at the hub of the (small) local community. Tight community, beautiful product that they take enormous pride in. A recipe one would think for deep engagement. Yet.

It turns out that they were bought a few years ago by a corporate. Said corporate decided that the best returns were to be made by restricting sales of its most iconic product to Asia, where the best prices could be obtained. So far, all so logical, but there seems to have been an unintended consequence. Those I spoke to were truly proud of what they do, and derived huge satisfaction from the local recognition of their skills. This conduit has been removed, and their frustration, anger even was palpable.

Reinforces the thought that has to go into engagement. Separate people from those who admire what they do, no matter the commercial logic, and trouble beckons.

Engagement – we get what we measure

measuring tapeEngagement is now so well established as a prime determinant of performance that is seems to have become a victim of its own success.

We have ways of measuring it, and orthodoxies around what causes it. We believe we understand it.

What if we don’t?

A comparison. In the learning and development world, there is a revolution taking place. Orthodoxy has it, for the last several hundred years, that the “course” is the way for people to learn. The course itself adapted to the rise of technology by going online – the same concept, improved, with added bells and whistles. However, the “course” suffers from a fatal flaw in the era of big data and machine learning. It is aimed at the average. The course is designed for scale, to apply education to large numbers of people economically, consistently and measurably (via qualifications). Problem is, qualifications measure the wrong thing – knowledge, versus what matters – application in the real world under real world conditions.

To take it to an extreme, every course meets the optimum needs of very few people – those closely clustered around the mean. Everyone else is an outlier at varying distances. They’re learning something designed for somebody else.

In the age of compliance that was fine, but now, as we enter a time when we need every shred of originality and creativity (whilst we automate the compliance tasks) it’s downright dangerous.

Perhaps engagement is the same. We fall victim of accepting a number, derived at a point in time, under false circumstances (a survey).

Engagement is as varied as learning. What engages you will not perfectly engage me. Measuring engagement around what’s easy, and reported as a variation on the average will not do.

We need data

Real time, granular, detailed, personal. There is no real reason why we can’t.  Every digital transaction, from a till entry to an order carries potential information. Why can’t we measure peaks and troughs of engagement in the same way as we measure footfall?

The answer of course is that we can – we just don’t. We accept orthodoxy, measurement of what’s easy, and become “wilfully blind

Engagement is vital, and will become more so. Digital engagement is becoming ever better, and in so doing raises the bar. As our automated interactions become better, so the transition to human interaction becomes ever more demanding. Moving from a helpful robot to a miserable human is an instant deal killer.

HR has long been the gatekeeper of engagement, but if we want to access the decision maker, it’s the people with the real time data. All we have to do is design the questions we wish to ask.

For engagement, like education, it’s the end of average, episodic, measurement. If we want to succeed, its time to go real time.