Featured Image: Jock Macneish My Elbow Room
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 28 March 2023
Several things coming together at once prompted me to think about Fred Emery’s ideas and my involvement in them from 1979 to the end of the 1990s.
First was involvement in doing politics differently and getting an independent senator David Pocock elected into the Australian parliament. After the election, I thought search-based focus groups could be used to develop an information-rich knowledge base and assist in community engagement.
Second, at the same time a health crisis made me think that it might be important to get together my knowledge of Fred Emery’s work.
The following articles have been an education and have re-engaged me with a set of powerful ideas around systems thinking.
The articles in order are: 1 Causal Texture (an annotated version of Emery & Trist’s famous paper), 2 The Search Conference (a description and explanation), 3 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis (a powerful statistical methodology as an adjunct to organisational change), 4 Participative Workplace Design (a description of workplace reform), and 5 An Organisational Thermometer (to measure progress in workplace reform).
The accompanying article on Q Research shows how I turned some of these ideas into a successful strategic marketing research business.
Designing an Organisational Thermometer in Practice
The chance of a lifetime to launch an international career! Designing a generic organisational thermometer; aligning it with participative organisational change at the workplace level, enthusiastically supported by management. This could become a competitive game changer.
1 Main Points
- ACTEW (ACT Electricity & Water) and satisfaction indices.
- The design criteria for the ACTEW surveys.
- The attributes of an organisational thermometer and the issues involved.
- ACT Public Works & Services
- McQuitty causal path analysis
2.1 ACTEW as a Case Study
The satisfaction indices arose accidentally in our Q Research work for ACTEW (ACT Electricity and Water). They wanted to look at satisfaction indices for their customers and I managed to tack on staff as well. The situation was tenuous and we certainly didn’t have any remit to pursue organisational change.
Nevertheless the marketing manager and the CEO were keen to look at satisfaction indices and we conducted them twice a year in April and October for domestic customers (what they really wanted) and once a year for large customers and staff from late 1992 to late 1994. (We also conducted a staff satisfaction index for an ACT Government Department in December 1994 with a report in January 1995.)
The work with ACTEW wasn’t sufficient to establish a baseline for staff satisfaction, but it helped ACTEW towards corporatisation. (I always thought that surveying the domestic customers twice a year was excessive but the money was good.)
I don’t think ACTEW was interested in the approach after corporatisation. I’d made my own sunset clause decision to cease involvement with Q Research and take a year overseas in February 1995 (see Karakorum Highway for the purpose of the trip).
Although customer satisfaction is unique to each organisation, staff satisfaction is generic and can be applied to any reasonably sized organisation and hence so can an organisational thermometer. ACTEW had 1370 employees when we began our satisfaction surveys.
Between late 1992 and the end of 1994 I treated the staff satisfaction indices developed at ACTEW very seriously. I was thinking of developing the tool of staff satisfaction into an organisational thermometer to take to the world.
2.2 My Choice
In every life one comes to forks in the road or choice points. For example, I married person A, but should I have married person B instead (hypothetical only). One occasionally wonders about this and what life might have been on path B, not seriously because that is dangerous. Similarly, I entertained the idea briefly, almost a daydream, of devoting a career to organisational thermometers and workplace change. Instead, Denise and I headed off to the Karakorum Highway and a year of adventure — a wonderful trip.
The organisational thermometer approach was also a unique and a wonderful opportunity. I even had a potential collaborative pathway forward. I don’t regret not doing so. Nevertheless, the opportunity still exists. Maybe someone will take it up.
3 ACTEW History
I’ve mentioned my business Q Research before. ACTEW (ACT Electricity and Water) was one of our major customers.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was formally selected as the site for a new Australian Capital in 1911. Construction began on the Cotter Dam in 1912 to provide a water supply and a power station was built in Kingston to supply electricity.
In 1963 the ACT Electricity Authority (ACTEA) was established as a corporate body. In 1988 the ACT was granted self-government and took over responsibility for the electricity and water resources of the ACT. In the same year the ACT Electricity and Water Authority (ACTEW) was established as a corporate body.
On 1 July 1995 ACTEW was corporatised properly and ACTEW Corporation Ltd was established wholly owned by the ACT Government. In 2000 AGL a commercial gas company partnered with ACTEW in a joint venture (with the ACT Government owning 50% of the AGL part of the venture).
When Q Research began working with ACTEW in late 1990, my slightly scathing assessment of the organisation was as a series of ‘robber baronies’. The modern term might be ‘silos’. By the time we finished working for them in late 1994, a mild-mannered but authoritative CEO had welded the organisation together ready for corporatisation.
During our work for ACTEW, the water organisation was looked down upon as backward by the electricity side of the business. I suspect this continued to be the culture after corporatisation, but may have gradually diminished over years. One also wonders what the commercial culture of AGL added to the mix.
4 The Design of Satisfaction Surveys at ACTEW
Rather than doing a simple job, which the client perhaps expected. I decided on a more rigorous approach and sought advice. I approached Ken Foreman (a retired sampling expert) for confirmation on the sampling methods.
All samples from the ACTEW database were chosen from a random start point.
Domestic customers were also stratified by suburb and a precise bias or weighting (x 1.9) was given to homes in new suburbs. High users were excluded to minimise unwanted variance. The sample represented 3000 ACTEW customers who were sent letters by the CEO requesting participation. The refusal rate on the basis of the letter (306) and later on contact with the interviewer by phone (174) was acceptable.
Large customers were much simpler.
All staff were sent surveys, but only a random sample of 500 stratified by Division were chosen to be analysed (36%), 260 or 52% were returned by the closing date and conformed well with the various occupation types. 52% may seem low but was considered typical (indeed good) for such an organisation.
In a participative organisational reform project one would expect much higher returns over time but probably not much higher at the beginning, even though the project has been communicated to all staff.
Suspicion of management in public sector organisations that I have worked in is frequently justified.
4.2 Psychosocial Approach
I discussed what I was hoping to achieve with Fred Emery on the social and psychological approach. I used Fred’s design criteria for a happy and productive work environment in the questionnaires (see Participative Design article). And, I also mentioned that I was going to use McQuitty causal path analysis to help interpret the results.
4.3 Questionnaire Design
The questionnaire design offered few challenges. The aim was to create robust and repeatable indices of the workplace related to hygiene factors, such as wages and conditions; supervision and tools to do the job; the six workplace environment criteria outlined in the article Participative Workplace Design; and corporate issues, such as leadership, information flow, corporate direction, vision and general satisfaction. (The questionnaires used are given in Further Information below.)
5 Organisational Thermometer
5.1 What is an Organisational Thermometer?
When we talk about organisations, we mean large to medium-sized enterprises or corporations. Small business is another kettle of fish!
If management were interested in getting the best out of their staff by providing a happy and productive work environment. If management supported a system where the staff feel respected and were allowed a degree of autonomy and to work in self-managed groups to get things done. Then, the concept of an organisational thermometer is extremely relevant.
An organisational thermometer is a tool to measure staff satisfaction in an ongoing way, to keep track of how staff are faring, and to be able to identify and rectify problems as they arise. An organisational thermometer is designed to track changes over time that would validate or contradict a long-term strategy for organisational improvement.
5.2 Emery and Phillips 1973 Study as a Guide
Population studies on the workplace are unusual. As mentioned in Participative Workplace Design:
James O’Toole et al. were commissioned by the US Government as a special taskforce on work in America published in 1972. …
The Australian Government commissioned Fred Emery and Chris Phillips to undertake a similar, but much smaller study based on carefully designed survey research, on the urban segment (cities and large towns) of the Australian working population in 1973 (published in 1976). Fred Emery consciously modelled the approach to be compatible with O’Toole.
Although the research was 20 years old, I found the Emery and Phillips study useful as a baseline for what to expect of the Australian workforce. Their in-depth analysis was enlightening. However, the questionnaires were rather over-designed, because they were to be used in face to face interviews and were meant to be representative of the entire urban working population.
My surveys (without the budget of Emery and Phillips) were much simpler and designed for a completely different purpose. The aim was to create a reproducible and accurate thermometer within a specific organisation. The surveys were to be completed anonymously without supervision.
6 Results with ACTEW
The results of the three annual staff surveys were more proof of concept than definitive.
From 1992 to 1994 ACTEW was in the process of becoming a theoretically independent corporation. The CEO during that period was a strong person who had undertaken the same corporatisation process with a state government entity in Queensland successfully.
Standard error is a measure of variance from the mean (average) and important for the indices. Standard errors for indices converted to out of 100 were between ±1.3 to 1.9 throughout. Most questions were 1.3 to 1.5 but those related to the corporate plan, supervision, tools to do the job and key psychological requirements were mainly in the range of 1.6-1.9.
Therefore in the comparison between years the level of accuracy is roughly 2%.
The satisfaction levels for ACTEW were about expected for a relatively bureaucratic large organisation. However, despite some declines between 1992 and 1993, the pattern for the three years was of gradual improvement. This was also not unexpected because of improvements in overall management.
However, as there was no participative design or strenuous organisational reform, the results represent only a proof of concept that an organisational thermometer as designed could be a potent tool in organisational redesign and could expose problems as they arose rather than long afterwards.
6.2 The ACTEW results
The survey was continued only for three years and represents three years worth of data. Although the organisation was being prepared for corporatisation, had a strong CEO and did appear to change positively over the three years, there was no systematic attempt to change the corporate culture and certainly no participative organisational change.
Hence, I am not trying to present you a formal analysis of the results (one’s usual practice). I just want you to gain an idea or a flavour of them. Figures for each question on the survey over the three years and the questionnaires themselves are provided in further information.
The four indices outlined are a general summary of findings. I left out the hygiene factors index probably on purpose. The label hygiene factors (an unsatisfactory one in my opinion) comes from Frederick Hertzberg. Hertzberg was an American psychologist who became very influential in business management in the 1950s and 1960s. Hygiene factors according to Herzberg’s Theory will not motivate but if they are not there, they can lower motivation.
The hygiene factors for ACTEW are as follows:
|Wages and Conditions (Q1)||61||58||57|
|Tools to Do the Job (Q 13)||69||64||65|
|Supervision (Qs 15-20)||66||62||65|
The hygiene factors show that wages and conditions improved significantly over the next two years. Tools to do the job did the same. Supervision (middle management) didn’t change, except that the dip to 62 in 1993 was significant and was reflected by some other variables. I probably knew why at the time, but suspect that it had something to do with the pressure on senior managers to change their ways by the new CEO.
What do these all these staff satisfaction indices show? Corporate culture probably improved over the three years (not surprising). The workplace (key psychological conditions), didn’t change much. Challenge and job satisfaction overall both may have improved slightly. Of the three hygiene factors, wages and conditions and tools to do the job may have improved slightly over the period. Overall supervision probably didn’t improve and as mentioned the dip in 1993 was most likely significant.
In total probably not a great indication of the effectiveness of the organisational thermometer. Although, its potential accuracy has been demonstrated.
7 Results with PWS
Public Works and Services (PWS) was a Division of the ACT Government for whom we undertook market research on four occasions in 1994 and 1995. One of these at the end of 1994 published in January 1995 was a staff satisfaction review across the division.
PWS was a typical amalgam of unrelated areas that are the type of units thrown together without much thought. They consisted of 1 Executive Support, 2 Business Services, 3 Capital Works, 4 Landscape, 5 Fleet and 6 Asset Management. With disparate work areas, differing classifications and also levels, were public servants who were unlikely to view things similarly.
With all the differences in work area, job classification and rankings, we suspected that views on the organisation would be mixed. The results compounded the problem as senior management were considered the root cause of many problems. Although, the results are rather dismal, the pattern is probably somewhat reminiscent of government service in general, particularly of departments or divisions that are as fragmented as PWS was.
From the point of view of baseline data for a study of an organisational thermometer, the information is useful. Unexpectedly, we have an inkling of what a slightly unhappy workplace looks like.
The results for ACTEW were for an organisation with mid-range problems only moderately better than PWS at the beginning, but which improved over the three measures.
As with ACTEW the results are indicative only, more proof of concept than definitive. The accuracy, however, as with ACTEW, is very good.
7.2 The PWS results
GSOs (general service officers) were much less satisfied with PWS than other work classifications. GSO is in general an unattractive work classification and the trend was also shown with ACTEW, just not as strongly. Similarly, employees under 30 felt less challenged and tended to be in boring jobs. Despite this, the general dissatisfaction with the PWS was across the board.
The results of many of the questions were roughly comparable with ACTEW but had a tendency to be slightly lower. However, general job satisfaction satisfaction at 53 was much lower than for ACTEW as was satisfaction with the business/corporate plan at 50. Career path at 40 and some other associated measures were also low. As was acceptance of information from the bottom-up 39, direction and leadership 47, and vision 56.
The accuracy of all measures was good, much tighter even than for ACTEW varying from ± 1.1 to 1.3 (with one 1.4). An accuracy level of ± 1-2% is more than sufficient for a reliable organisational thermometer.
The satisfaction indices above were partly comparable with ACTEW in 1992. The corporate culture index was the same at 45. However, corporate culture improved markedly at ACTEW in the following two years. And, 45 is a low starting point indicating perceived problems with top management. The four key workplace (every day work) index of elbow room, learning, variety and mutual respect at 65 were adequate and only marginally below ACTEW. (These are four of the six key workplace requirements necessary for a happy and productive work place outlined in the Participative Design article.)
However, the challenge index at 61 was slightly but significantly below ACTEW (64, 63, 67) and the general job satisfaction with PWS overall at 53 was not good (ACTEW 62, 64, 65).
The hygiene factors for PWS are as follows:
|Wages and Conditions (Q1)||57|
|Tools to Do the Job (Q 13)||62|
|Supervision (Qs 15-20)||62|
Hygiene factors (defined above) were lower but similar to ACTEW. Wages and conditions at 57 were where ACTEW was at in 1992, but wages and conditions improved at ACTEW in the next two years (57, 58, 61). Tools to do the job at 62 were significantly lower than at ACTEW (65, 64, 69) and probably a genuine issue. Supervision (middle management) at 62 though lower than at ACTEW (65, 62, 66) was probably part of the general malaise of dissatisfaction rather than a major problem. Much of the problem seemed to lie with senior management and the fact that the division was a careless amalgamation of dissimilar units.
The key areas of dissatisfaction shown by the results were:
- direction and leadership (39), the business plan (50), job satisfaction and general satisfaction with PWS (both 53), vision (56), and
- a job related, lack of career path (40).
Our original charter was to conduct these staff satisfaction indices for a further two years. However, as we suspected from the implied criticism of senior management, the issue of further staff satisfaction surveys was quietly dropped.
8 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis
Overall McQuitty causal path road maps were not particularly useful between years in the ACTEW study. Although the patterns had similarities and were also not dissimilar to Figure 2 below for PWS. This is not particularly surprising as the power of McQuitty causal path analysis as outlined in the article relies on other data and a profound knowledge of the area. If, one is undertaking a long-term organisational change journey, preferably using participative design principals, the actual endeavours (successes and failure) will over time make the Mcquitty analysis far more pivotal.
I said in the McQuitty article:
McQuitty in isolation, for example, if you are embarking on a new area and have no idea of what it all means, is not much use. You need to have some familiarity with the area you are studying. You need to have a basis of knowledge and understanding outside of the McQuitty analysis to interpret the McQuitty roadmap.
Yet, I did find smaller McQuitty analyses of a discrete group of variables helpful in understanding the results. Two examples are given in figure 1 below from the first ACTEW staff satisfaction survey in 1992. Index 1 shows the relationship between hygiene factors and the executive of ACTEW. Index 2 shows the relations between the 6 psychological requirements for a satisfying and productive workplace and supervisor ‘feedback a’, positive feedback for a job well done. (The explanation of the question numbers is provided in the questionnaires below.)
The overall McQuitty analysis for PWS in figure 2 seems superficially to reflect the figures discussed above and to show a strong linkage between the key workplace variables and executive or senior management leadership and style. However, one must take this McQuitty finding with caution and not immediately leap on the support it apparently gives to the findings above. The McQuitty analysis is powerful but it also must be combined with a deep understanding of the workplace and how it is changing over time. It is premature to leap to conclusions at this stage. The ACTEW overall patterns whilst similar were not as clear cut and did not change over the three measures in a reliable way that was open to interpretation.
McQuitty causal path analysis is a very powerful tool if used wisely, but it must be used as an analytical adjunct to other findings and requires understanding built up over time and experience.
To reiterate, McQuitty causal path analysis whilst interesting at this early stage, will come into its own only over time and with a really deep understanding of the organisation involved.
You should have noticed that I have been very careful not to over-egg the results above. These are good results taken with care and diligence. But, they are only the first step in proving and establishing the efficacy of an organisational thermometer.
I think that the questionnaires are well-designed for the task. The sampling and the approach were meticulous. The results prove that the concept works and were useful in themselves, but more research with a wider number of organisations and over a sufficient length of time is necessary.
I’d guess a time of at least eight to ten years for a useful longitudinal evaluation: beginning with a baseline survey before change. Annual surveys would then be required over the time of the organisational change, with follow-up surveys for problem solving, after the formal change process has ended. Indeed, the effort required for a large organisation isn’t intensive, and the idea of continuous annual staff satisfaction surveys for evaluation of the organisation is almost certainly a good thing.
The way I envisage the thermometer working over say a 3-5 year structured organisational change process, preferably a participative design approach, is as a graph. The graph would begin as a baseline, this would then rise as the organisational reform is implemented to a plateau. If the reform process is continuous, the graph may continue to rise but more slowly. Eventually, one would notice occasional blips from the straight line. These blips should be interpretable at the end of the year by being tied to particular events, but they might also be warning signs that something is going wrong or of-track.
I think an organisational thermometer is probably most useful in the context of participative organisational design. Given the state of corporate culture around the world at present, I suspect that whilst widely needed, the development and use of organisational thermometers may be a niche market for some time.
Key Words: organisational thermometer, Q Research, ACTEW, ACT Electricity and Water, PWS, ACT Public Works and Services, staff satisfaction index, generic, random start point, variance, mean, standard error, baseline, accuracy, Fred Emery, psychological, social, design criteria, happy and productive work environment, questionnaire, workplace, hygiene factors, Frederick Hertzberg, motivation, wages and conditions, supervision, tools to do the job, workplace environment criteria, indices, corporate issues, leadership, information flow, corporate direction, vision, general satisfaction, McQuitty causal path analysis, road maps, participative organisational reform, corporate culture, challenge, business/corporate plan, career path, information from the bottom-up, elbow room, learning, variety, mutual respect, career path, meaningful work, job satisfaction, general satisfaction
Staff Satisfaction Questionnaires ACTEW
These staff satisfaction questionnaires are generic. They were the same for PWS below and would be virtually identical for any organisation.
Summary of Findings of the Staff Satisfaction Surveys for ACTEW
Summary of Findings of the Staff Satisfaction Surveys for PWS
Wikipedia on Job Satisfaction and Employee Surveys
Wikipedia has a not very satisfactory article on job satisfaction which shows that more recent psychology has not really resolved any issues in a practical way.
Wikipedia also has a very sketchy article on employee surveys, which contains more useful information and a definition of purpose: ‘to evaluate and progress organizational health as it pertains to personnel’ which I wouldn’t disagree with.
Job satisfaction surveys
There are a large number of corporate consulting firms spruiking for satisfaction surveys on the Internet. Their suggestions and solutions are variable. Some are quite good and the suggestions conform to a lesser or greater degree to the Fred Emery approach, which was my entry point into the topic.
I think Survey Monkey has a reasonable article and suggests questions very similar to those I have used (from a similar intellectual base). Survey Monkey suggests establishing benchmarks.
As with anything to do with business management and organisational development the literature needs to be treated carefully and taken with a huge grain-of-salt.
Fred Emery has a lovely quotation on this issue in section 5 of the Search Conference article.
Oh you tease, I may have to ask about Person B! 🙂
The research to understand employee satisfaction takes me back to my work at BHEL where we tried to introduce participatory systems at work while the country was under authoritarian rule at the time! Led to many internal debates within the team.
A colleague and I recently discussed our involvement in Search Conferences in Australia. We both agreed that it would be extremely hard in Australia these days to get anyone to commit to a two-and-a-half-day search process.
I wonder whether participative design in the workplace still happens? I don’t know because such things usually fly under the radar. However, I’m putting organisational thermometers out there in case we need them in the near future.