Why quantitative research alone doesn’t tell the whole story: the IC Index and the need for caution

One of the biggest issues with using purely quantitative surveys for insights about communication is that what they don’t tell us can be more pertinent than what they actually say.

The recently-released IC Index report, based on a UK-focused study looking at internal communication, is a case in point. 

It hit the streets this summer with a considerable amount of fanfare.  Conducted by London-based employee research firm Ipsos Karian and Box, involving 3000 respondents and collected with the backing of the Institute of Internal Communication, it purports to provide “a UK-wide employee view of what good communication looks like.”

As such, it is not an insignificant piece of research. But by looking only at employee preferences – and particularly at employee ratings and rankings of desirable channels and tactics,it overlooks or glosses over some crucial issues IC pros need to consider when formulating strategies and assessing priorities. 

Here are some insights that become clear on reading the IC Index report – none of which were included in the report’s own text.

  1. Employee content preferences do not (always) equal strategic priorities

Naturally, employee preferences need to be taken into consideration when formulating internal communication strategies.  

But if internal communication is going to be a function that helps move the business forward, and delivers measurable impact on performance, it needs to help leaders to lead at least as much as it helps followers to follow.  

A look at the top employee-preferred topics by “net demand” (the difference between employees seeking more information on a topic and those desiring less) not surprisingly noted communication about pay and benefits as a runaway favorite, well ahead of second choice “my organization’s strategy and direction.”  

Choices in the bottom half included “external context”, “how my organization is helping customers,” “my organization’s achievements and successes”, “my organization’s purpose and mission,” and “my organization’s values and culture.”  

All of these are items which, in my experience at least, register more highly on leadership’s agenda – and are key to driving alignment both strategically and operationally.

  1. Employee “general” format preferences tell us little about specific needs

In the IC Index, the results appear to show a strong preference for email.  

But this preference reflects responses to the question of “Which of the following do you prefer to to receive general news and updates about or from your employer?” – and where the options are “emails”, “1-2-1s with my line manager,” “company newsletters,” “team meetings,” and “my colleagues (word of mouth).

I don’t deny the importance of email – indeed, my #WeLeadComms project is sponsored by #Workshop, one of the more innovative email platforms on the market.

But given that this question only probes “general news and updates,” the IC index tells us little about what types of messages employees prefer to come from which channel, and nothing about which channel actually delivers specific types of messages most effectively.  

Also, by focusing on current employee preferences, the IC Index downplays the attractiveness of comprehensive employee communication platforms, as these have still to become fully widespread in the UK.  Indeed, many of the respondents sharing opinions about employee communication platforms have never actually experienced them – thus making their preferences hypothetical at best.

  1. Asking employees if they are clear on the company strategy does not mean they are clear on the company strategy

One of the major flaws in quantitative employee surveys is that, rather than checking genuine understanding of such details as strategies and priorities, they simply ask respondents whether they feel they understand or are clear about strategies and priorities.

The IC Index gives a 57% “positive” rating to the question “my employer has been clear on the organisation’s strategy and business priorities.”  But research done at MIT showed that only 28% of executives and managers executing strategy could list three strategic priorities.  

  1. All employees are not equal – especially when it comes to consuming and sharing content.

There is a lot of emphasis placed in the report on the IC Index’s findings about the amount of time that respondents self-reported that they engaged with “internal comms” content – with the headline for that section being “You have 15 minutes (or less!)”

The actual results are quite a bit more nuanced than that.  The Index says:

25% say “none-hardly any time”

43% say “up to 15 minutes per day”

23% say 15-30 minutes per day 

7% say 30-60 minutes per day

2% say over an hour per day.

Rather than looking at these results from a “you have 15 minutes or less to engage with each employee” perspective, an alternative approach involves recognizing:

  • About 10% of your people engage deeply with your content
  • 25% essentially pick up all of their company information by word of mouth
  • Any gaps in the formal internal communication are likely to be filled with interpretations shared via word-of-mouth

If you buy the interpretation that we need to make the bulk of IC interventions more “snackable” – you also can’t overlook the fact that word of mouth will be the main way employees will get any substance beyond the initial “snack.”

Moreover, the key isn’t to assume every employee takes 15 minutes to engage with their companies’ internal communication and boil everything down so that everyone gets the same pre-digested 15 minutes of content.  

It’s about making sure that the two minutes, fifteen minutes or sixty minutes that they engage with your content actually count.

  1. The IC Index plays on preferences to dangerously downplay word-of-mouth

It does not surprise me that only 9% of index respondents consider word-of-mouth a preferred communication channel, or that 19% say that they rely upon it.  

But unless companies are to suddenly decide to make all employee communication 100% transparent and 100% “snackable”, word-of-mouth and internal influence will continue to play a critical – and largely misunderstood – role in internal communication, particularly in driving the penetration and recall of internal messaging even by those who shy away from engaging with formal internal communication.  

Because effectively influencing internal word of mouth also involves engaging a relatively small number of highly influential “internal influencers”, focusing on improving internal influence can be a highly cost-effective and time-effective approach to sharpening internal communication and increasing alignment.  

But you wouldn’t pick that up from the IC Index.

  1. The “not-so-magificent seven” paints a rosier picture than warranted

I’m not a huge fan of Net Promoter Score (NPS) or its internal version, eNPS.

But given its reliance on the traditional 1-10 sentiment scale, the most attractive feature of the NPS is that it only ascribes genuinely positive feelings to those giving answers of 9-10, while those at 7-8 are considered “passives” at best, and those below 7 are considered negative or “detractors.”

The one-to-five scale used by Trustpilot and TripAdvisor addresses this more visibly. A 3.5 (the equivalent of a 7 in the IC Index) is not considered an “excellent” score when a 4 is considered the norm in all but the most problematic cases. 

Yet the IC Index insists on considering 7s as “excellent” scores in order to paint a favorable picture of the status-quo thinking pushed through the report’s narrative.  

In the section “The big picture looks good”, all of the sectors mentioned achieved “excellent” ratings from at least 50% of respondents.  But, I suspect, those numbers would plunge if 7s were treated as more neutral (or, as they are in less-trusted employee engagement surveys, treated as politely hostile.)  

In closing

I do not deny the value of the IC Index – particularly as a baseline for measuring the changes improved IC technologies and more resilient cultures could bring in the future.  

But it has the potential to become a charter for complacency, particularly when it comes to the crucial role of internal influence and the opportunities presented by improved technology.

Its omissions – and the report’s generally cheerful tone – could lead practitioners to overaccentuate their strategies towards current preferences rather than future opportunities. 

The report also serves as a cautionary example to internal communication pros to consider adding qualitative questions to their own research to help put quantitative findings into a genuinely meaningful context.

mike-klein-face
Mike Klein

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy focused on internal, change and social communication. Mike has worked with organizations in the US and Europe for more than 20 years on pressing strategic communication challenges, and is a prolific writer and commentator on communication strategy topics. Mike is also the Founder of #WeLeadComms, an initiative to drive open recognition and in the communication profession. He holds an MBA from London Business School, and is a former US political consultant.

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