Ford’s Employee Sentiment Strategy: Ask / Listen / Observe
Culture is about what it feels like to work somewhere. It includes all the beliefs employees hold and the actions they take every day to drive results. Ford Motor Company is working to transform its culture in ways that will help achieve its aspiration—to become the world’s most trusted company, delivering smart vehicles for a smart world. This means studying the existing culture, clarifying what needs to change and why, designing creative opportunities to make it happen; and measuring progress along the way.
Ford’s culture work over the past few years includes building a culture strategy room at its headquarters, hosting culture hackathons all around the world, creating a culture cabinet and street team with employee volunteers, defining new company values, and redesigning all people processes to ensure culture is central to how Ford hires, trains, and evaluates employees.
Throughout these efforts, Ford needed a way to measure the culture change. Traditionally, Ford would rely on surveys to know how employees feel about something like culture change—but after extensive external and internal research, Ford realized that using surveys would paint only part of the picture. They started collecting, cleaning, and analyzing new passive data sources such as employee chat logs and comment streams from internal communications to create a more holistic story than surveys alone could provide. This meant looking across as many data points as possible to determine whether and how culture was changing. The company calls this holistic approach to employee sentiment: Ask / Listen / Observe.
This case study was selected as a recipient of i4cp’s 2020 Next Practice Awards.
While launching culture change initiatives around the company, Ford expected to see differences in key areas—such as breaking bureaucracy, testing new ideas to overcome complex problems, and prioritizing customer experience. Ford asked employees to lean into these areas because they are exceptionally likely to drive company success.
Ford ran into trouble when it came to knowing whether and how culture was actually changing, though. The team needed to build new methods to study employees’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and to identify pockets around the company requiring more help. Measuring culture is notoriously difficult because it encompasses so many things for employees—it can include everything and anything that affects what it feels like to work at a company. To be able to measure culture change well, Ford had to think outside the box. The team questioned traditional ways of gathering employee sentiment, like surveying, and explored all-new data sources to create an innovative and comprehensive employee sentiment strategy.
Solution – Scope & Innovation
Ford created its Ask / Listen / Observe approach after external research about how the world’s best companies are studying employee sentiment as well as internal research about what employees and leaders really need.
When it comes to asking how employees are thinking, feeling, and behaving, Ford has made substantial changes. Until recently, Ford conducted an employee survey every-other-year, inviting all employees to participate. That approach seemed slower and heavier than benchmarks / industry next practices, so Ford’s team interviewed employees to learn what they liked (and what they did not like) about the survey. They found that employees wanted quicker, more actionable surveys and more automated help to know what to do with results. Starting this year, Ford has shifted to conduct a “mini” version of its employee survey quarterly, which has helped leaders monitor and make changes more regularly. Ford has also completely redesigned its full annual survey, with fewer, clearer, and more actionable questions as well as improved dashboards leveraging natural language processing and other pattern-based algorithms to help employees easily understand results and what to do with them. Both the quarterly and annual surveys measure culture change—among other critical topics—and provide vital “ask” data for Ford.
As for listening, the Ford team looks for data from places where employees are naturally discussing culture. As a few examples, they might record written messages on community whiteboards, anonymous reviews left on Glassdoor, enterprise meeting chat logs, or comment streams on internal news articles. None of this is about identifying who is saying what, but rather, knowing what high-level culture topics are trending at any given time.
Finally, observing for culture data means monitoring views and viewer behavior associated with internal videos and presentations related to culture. It also means watching how quickly employees sign up—and whether they sign up—for company culture events. Other “observe” data includes tracking how many employees have downloaded culture materials, visited Ford’s culture site, self-assessed on their culture behaviors using Ford-provided tools, and more. Observing is about looking for how people are interacting with and responding to culture change information.
Fig 1. Example Ask/Listen/Observe story. All data are fictional.
Results & Impact
While Ford has had practice over the years in asking, listening and observing were very new. These data sources were owned by different teams within Ford (IT, Communications, HR, etc.), which required new partnerships to be formed. Once data were shared, extensive cleaning and preparation was required to make it usable. A machine learning engine had to be set up and trained to automate text analysis across languages. Dashboards were designed to be able to interpret results easily. Permissions needed to be set up to share results with the people who needed them. Expectations for communication and action increased given these new, always-available data sources. This work was new, complex, and often challenging—but it brought Ford to a place where its leaders understood more than ever before what employees needed and wanted.
Even with early Ask / Listen / Observe prototypes, the Ford team was able to share culture change sentiment in a near real-time way, which was then used to adjust strategy and action. As an example, when they learned that certain communications weren’t reaching as many employees as they needed to, they looked to Ford’s listening and observing data to adjust where and how those communications were being advertised. By doing so, they were often able to double—and sometimes quadruple the number of employees spending time with vital internal information.
After proving out the value for Ask / Listen / Observe, it is now a common way Ford seeks to understand employee sentiment, not just for culture change, but for a variety of critical company topics. This approach provides exceptional levels of insight and detail that were previously ignored, and without using additional time or energy from our employees.
Overall, Ford has realized that a simple survey is not enough to know how employees are thinking and feeling about something as important as culture change. Employees will not always participate in a survey, and when they do, they may not be as direct, honest, or thoughtful as you need them to be. Creating new, different ways to study them, to engage them, to learn from them, and to include them in the culture change seems key. A comprehensive, systematic approach like Ask / Listen / Observe is needed.
One lesson Ford learned early-on had to do with enhanced expectations for communication and action. Once you know more about what’s affecting employees, and what’s needed to make a program more successful, everyone involved will want to do something—as they should. This is especially important when asking. Collecting employee feedback through an “ask” like a survey is helpful for the organization, and it’s also highlight to employees what’s most important. They will expect to see results and then to see something done about them. If you’re not willing to change something, carefully consider whether you should be asking about it. Every employee sentiment initiative must be paired with a clear results sharing and action step. If not, employees may disengage entirely.
As Ford looks ahead, the team will keep using and evolving the Ask / Listen / Observe employee sentiment strategy. They will also test opportunities to drive more precise action than they have in the past. As an example, the team is currently planning a series of positive deviance studies, looking at soon-to-be-available employee sentiment data to learn which leaders within the company are embodying Ford’s culture exceptionally and sending teams to learn from them, celebrate them, and bring back insights to other leaders who are struggling. As Ford continues to build its muscle around employee sentiment measurement, they will be able to carry out more targeted and impactful interventions like these.