Feedback and secondary data: how to put data at the service of employee experience?

I recently talked about making what we now call the employee experience part of an operational excellence and continuous improvement approach, and it’s this topic that I’m going to explore in a little more depth here.

The service sector and knowledge workers, the forgotten ones in the improvement process

I won’t go back over what I said in the past, but to make a long story short: nothing or very little has been done in the service and knowledge work sector to improve the work of employees.

Why? Because they follow processes that are often adhoc with a certain amount of informality, and because they are most often invisible data and workflows, it is easy to pretend that the problems do not exist, as if one could not see anything.

Hence the easy solution: processes are enacted and tools are put in place without measuring their effectiveness, just thinking that people will follow and use them. The process and the tools are placed at the center and the individual at the periphery while one claims to do the opposite.

Again, as the New York Times noted:

Peter Drucker noted that during the twentieth century, the productivity of manual workers in the manufacturing sector increased by a factor of fifty as we got smarter about the best way to build products. He argued that the knowledge sector, by contrast, had hardly begun a similar process of self-examination and improvement, existing at the end of the twentieth century where manufacturing had been a hundred years earlier”.

I agree that because of a lack of observation and measurement, we have accommodated ourselves to this constraint by doing, if not the best, at least the least worst. But now that the constraint has disappeared, it is time to question the way we operate.

Because there are many things at stake. Better operations mean both more efficient and more satisfied employees. More efficient employees mean a more efficient company and more satisfied customers. More satisfied employees mean more committed employees, who see that what matters to them is finally being taken care of, less tempted to leave and, ultimately, more satisfied customers.

Businesses are no longer blind

Indeed, businesses are no longer as blind as they were in the past, for two reasons. The first is the rise of feedback collection mechanisms, the second is the ability to collect secondary data from applications.

It is true that feedback is not a new concept. What is new is that businesses are using it more and more and that new solutions allow them to process it on a large scale and quickly, to make sense of it (insights) and to make it actionable (using insights to design a new way of operating) as we could read in this interesting case study.

As for secondary data, it is nothing new either, it has always existed. The difference is that today we exploit this data, which until now was used for debugging purposes and reserved for a tool’s technical administrators.

The art of collecting good feedback

I have already told you all the good things I thought about the feedbacks and the limits I found to this practice. Yes, the potential is huge but when you do something good in an akward way, you do nothing good.

I’ve seen businesses:

  • Collecting feedbacks without using them. Employees were disappointed and the initiative was terminated.
  • Launching such a process without involving managers who did not play the game, listen, or even put pressure on their teams not to participate or only to say positive things.
  • Collecting biased feedback for a variety of reasons.

In short, when it becomes an accessory approach, “nice to have”, disconnected from the rest and not anchored in the organizational reality of the business, and if you don’t try to avoid certain biases, feedback doesn’t lead to much.

Good feedback:

  • Must be contextualized. In what context was the employee at the time he gave it, individually or collectively. Was he working on a demanding project, had just received his paycheck or quarterly bonus, is he coming back from sick leave or maternity/paternity leave ….
  • Must be requested at the right time. Every Friday night people are happy to go away for the weekend, as opposed to Monday morning. Employees should only be asked for feedback on an application or a process when they have just experienced it, not occasionally or 3 months later.
  • Its “audience”, its target must be carefully defined according to the question asked and what you want to learn from it.
  • Its form must be chosen wisely. Open or closed question? What is the wording of the question? All options have their advantages and weaknesses, you just have to be aware of them.
  • Some will also ask about anonymization. Even if the subject is sensitive in business, it is easier to get honest feedback on certain topics if the answer is anonymous.

That’s for the feedback itself. Then there are questions of tools and internal organization, because the tool is never self-supporting, whatever the technological solutionism enthusiasts like to think.

  • The corporate culture must be “feedback compatible”.
  • Managers must be ready to receive feedback
  • The business must be equipped and organized to handle feedback. Not only to collect them, but to draw insights from them and use them to design improvements. This requires an organization, processes, tools and therefore resources.

In short, the questions to ask when launching a feedback approach are :

  • What is my goal. Collecting feedback is not a goal, just a means.
  • What do I need to learn to achieve it.
  • What to ask? When to ask? To whom? In what form?
  • Am I (and all stakeholders in the topic) ready to hear the feedback.
  • Is the organization ready to act on the feedback.
  • Do I have the tools to do all this?

We could write for hours on the subject of feedback but I think we have here a good basis to start with.

But there is more to life than feedback. Even if we take all possible precautions, we are never safe from the Hawthorne effect: people’s behavior changes when they know they are being observed and when they are asked to participate in an observation in an initiative that values them. At some point there may be a gap between the message they are going to convey and their actual feelings, in one direction or the other.

To remedy this and in addition to a feedback approach there is what I call “passive observation“.

The power of passive employee observation

When we ask people for feedback, we benefit from “first hand”, authentic information. But this type of approach can have limits and deserves to be complemented.

  • Because biases are possible depending on the anonymization, the timing.
  • Because when we ask for feedback we risk only getting feedback from people with the strongest opinions.
  • Because when they feel observed and valued in a business process, people’s behavior changes and they can lose their authenticity and become, unconsciously, more calculating.

On a souvent dit qu’il suffisait de se balader sur le lieu de travail pour sentir, saisir un certain nombre de choses. Avec les feedbacks on demande activement, là on observe passivement. Cela a été théorisé sous le nom de “management by walking around“. Une approche qui connait des limites d’ordre physique.

It’s easy in a factory, less so in an office where the flows and the “stuff” are invisible. I often say that you don’t need to be an expert to realize that a factory is dysfunctional if you see machines at a standstill, dirty, with work in progress and stocks piling up here and there. If you walked into an open space and saw todo lists and emails stacked to the ceiling, “workflows” that looked like a plate of spaghetti, you would quickly become afraid.

It is also more difficult to do this when a growing proportion of employees are working from home.

Today employees, businesses and managers are less blind than before thanks to so-called secondary data.

What are we talking about? Data that is found in an application but that is peripheral to its initial use.

For example, in your email box the primary data is the email. The secondary data is the number of emails received, read, unread, the time taken to read and reply, the number of people copied, the length of the threads.

If we take the communication tools in a broad sense, the primary data are the messages, in all their forms, the secondary data are “who talks to whom, with what intensity”. This is what is used to do Social Network Analysis (SNA) and identify the real productive structure of the business: the one according to which people work and often has nothing to do with the organizational chart.

These secondary data are now used a lot in our private lives, especially in sports and health. The primary purpose of a watch or a phone is not to count the number of steps you take each day or the calories you consume, and yet they know how to do it. It remains to do something with these data.

Today more and more applications (or groups of applications to have cross application data) are useful for example :

  • To the employee to improve his work hygiene
  • To the manager to manage the mental load and the workload of the employees
  • To the business to understand the workflows at the global level.

A popular example of an application using and valuing secondary data is Microsoft Viva, which confirms that more than bringing new things Viva mainly helps to value an existing information heritage.

Beware, however: secondary data is only a tool and the issue of data, its confidentiality and the monitoring of employees is becoming increasingly sensitive. Microsoft has had to backtrack on some of Viva’s controversial features.


For a long time, businesses have been able to organize the work of knowledge workers or service activities in an archaic way due to the lack of data to materialize them and thus start from tangible elements to improve things.

Today they are not as blind as they once were and there are no excuses for not making the connection between employee experience, operational excellence and continuous improvement.

As long as they use the tools wisely and with a little finesse.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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