It is time employers got engaged with employee engagement

The announcement of the new guidance on employee engagement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is a welcome addition to the support available to organisations wishing to boost employee engagement amongst their workforce.

The guidance is the next stage after the launch in September 2009 of the report for Government "Engaging for Success" compiled by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke. This set out a compelling case for British Business to take up employee engagement to deliver better business performance.

As one of the experts consulted to design this new implementation guidance after the publication of the original report it is good to see that has come out on time and in a simple and understandable form, often unusual from Government Departments. It also has good practical examples of success together with both video and written tools that can be downloaded.

Too many official bodies, professional groups or indeed HR specialists, produce guidance on initiatives of value for business that actually complicate the subject for the non expert reader, or present it in a way that makes its difficult to transfer to the real world as it is too theoretical. This sadly means the valuable message is lost in the mass of jargon and the likelihood of implementation in the real world is small. Either that or, if it is great advice, it has little impact because the people that need it cannot access it or are unaware of it.

I have personal experience of this having been an advisor to Government in 1999 on a report to build leadership capability in British Business that produced good findings but had little impact due to its low profile and inadequate implementation support post publication.  

The new engagement guidance seems to be avoiding most of these pitfalls but despite its value it is not home and dry quite yet. Whilst the online guidance will be accepted by the HR community I am not convinced that the non HR world will be so enthusiastic - their question will be in many cases "so what's the point?".

Whilst there is a mention of the Hay Group study that showed good employee engagement can increase revenue by 43% its is a pity there is no summary of the "killer facts" from main report that would make even the most sceptical Finance Director and CEO rush to get engagement implemented.

I often also see HR functions frustrating their own best efforts to get good things done by them not remembering that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", so whatever is being presented must deliver perceived benefit to the person receiving it. There is also the small problem of turning what is written in words on paper into the day to day reality in an organisation. Whilst tools, templates and videos help the journey the real key to success is to have someone who has been previously successful implementing what you are trying to implement either in the organisation or advising. They know all those innumerable practical traps that can either slow or block implementation that never appear in the written strategy or operational plans.   

Another issue with implementing engagement is that if people are only more engaged with delivery of local objectives and extra effort is not also aligned to the critical organisational deliverables then the benefit of the extra performance is wasted. It makes local delivery better but the potential increase in overall organisational benefit is significantly diluted.

 There is also an issue because initiatives such as this often concentrate, understandably, on a specific area of organisational operation, in this case engagement. Whilst that divides the effective operation of organisations up into bite size chunks, either by function or initiative, it often creates a false impression that making things happen in organisations can be done in discrete boxes - it can't. Further this problem effects nearly all internal HR initiatives as well and causes many failures. Organisations don't operate via discrete internal boxes - they are dynamic and interactive communities where getting one thing to work well depends on getting something else to work well somewhere else.

In this case it is doubtful that real engagement can advance unless basic leadership capability, performance management and communication systems are already in place in the organisation or being implemented alongside it. Those are the core foundations on which engagement must be built. If the majority of line managers can't measure performance, give feedback, communicate both strategic and operational objectives and inspire and motivate their people then even starting engagement is unwise. And the problem is that most research shows that most line managers aren't very good at this.

So the new guidance is a step in the right direction, the report is an excellent guide to engagement - but before you rush headlong into thinking it's a silver bullet for your organisation just make sure that your leadership foundations are in place. Or you might just shoot yourself in the foot.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School and has held senior HR roles in UBS, HSBC, KPMG and London Underground.