Earlier this year Engage CEO Phil Wedgwood released his book ‘Destination Engage’ – weaving the evolution of both engagement theory and practice with the company’s parallel development and his own breakneck ride through business life.,
There’s lots to enjoy and lots to ponder on as this business technology enthusiast warms to his theme. Over the summer we’ll be serialising the book and showcasing some of the thinking that is shaping how organisations approach both internal and external engagement.
As Phil reveals, putting engagement at the heart of your business and connecting to all the audiences that matter - colleagues, customers, wider communities - can turbocharge performance, and even transform whole industries.
Part 1: Starting the journey
[Background: Back in 2016 my partner Phil Ashworth and I were looking for a new business technology opportunity following the successful sale of our legal time recording app, Rekoop. Serendipity took us into the path of John Porter, who had co-developed the UK’s first employee engagement app. We joined forces and the Engage Solutions Group journey began.]
Because of Rekoop and the fact that what started as a mobile app ended up impacting a whole sector, I was perhaps more alive to the potential of the apps John was delivering. Yes, we could certainly enhance the mechanics of engagement within and around a company, that was a given. But was there also the opportunity to transform their thinking, in the way we had with legal, and bring lasting change to more sectors? That would be very cool indeed.
We didn’t hang about. The deal was done, the die was cast, we were back in business - and that business was employee engagement. It may have been a mix of minds and skillsets at the outset, but it was a harmonious collaboration and we were soon focusing on just four things – three research statistics and one observation. These laid the foundation for everything that came after pretty much, so what were the figures that fascinated?
- Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by a whopping 202%
- Some 80% of workers don’t sit at desks every day
- 40% of all deskless/non-desked employees “don’t feel loved” by their employers
Just three stats but what a world of lost opportunity they painted. Here was a form of digital apartheid, the ‘happy haves’ with their desks and email/intranet connections to the organisation; and the ‘unhappy have-nots’, on the frontline, not necessarily equipped with any means to stay plugged in to what was going on, or at least to be able to do so easily and regularly.
Here was our first take-out. Effective engagement demanded organisational egalitarianism and digital equality. If you didn’t equip everyone with the same technology or opportunity, you were doomed before you started. So we had our first base: putting an app on everyone’s smartphone (with a complementary app for desktop users too) to end the apartheid, to address the disconnect and get everyone enabled, engaged and empowered.
Added to that was our instinctive take on the situation. The challenge as we saw it wasn’t so much pushing the benefits of engagement – all those blue-chips instinctively got why it’s a ‘good thing’ – but how to make a demonstrable success of engagement projects. The early soundings that we took accorded with John’s experiences and insights when he talked with prospects – many manifesting understandable ‘once bitten’ defensiveness: programs were getting launched with fanfare, only to fizzle out; some never even got off the ground at all. Apps were coming and going, all too limited, too disjointed, too orphaned to embed themselves properly or ever to be loved really.
I recall one of the slides we used in sales presentations back then, charting the ‘lament’ of HR directors faced with making a success of engagement:
“Where do I start? What do I do next? What are the levers I need to pull? How do I link things together? Why does it have to be so difficult? Why won’t my IT team help? How do we drive digital adoption? How do we make sense of all the systems we have? What does success even look like?”
Wow, the knowing nods and resigned smiles we got when that popped up on screen. But the great thing was that on the next slide we had an answer for them.
The Five Pillars of Engagement
Look at the Engage website today (www.engagesolutionsgroup.com) and you won’t see a reference to the Five Pillars. They were an early construct but while they may have dropped from our marketing toolkit (or rather, morphed into more sophisticated frameworks which we’ll come onto later) they are still very much part of our internal vocabulary, and indeed of our coal-face work with clients.
But back in the day the Five Pillars approach was the catalyst – for quicker, clearer understanding; for faster, better, more sustainable roll-outs; for getting us over that first critical hurdle; for putting in the foundations for enduring employee engagement success.
Our very first job as a new team was to sit down to map out the challenge: what is engagement, its key components, what does success look like, and how do we provide a framework to get there. Or put another way, how do we give clients the clear strategy and enabling mechanism to help them deliver engagement success. In the BP era (Before Phils), John had already done a tremendous job of showcasing his first-generation employee app – it offered so much in such a handy modern package that clients lapped it up: a point solution to a singular problem.
But what came next? Without on-going support or indeed a more fundamental appreciation of how to align the app with business imperatives, then there was always that risk of more failed and aborted projects, with increasing cases of ‘twice bitten’ HRs. So much of what we saw in those early days gave us pause. Whenever we went into a prospect there appeared to be no clear framework within that business that set out how technology and systems could create engagement success - with real tangible metrics and defensible return on investment figures.
The market at this time (between the encouraging splash of John’s first-gen app and the launch of the Engage nextgen app) featured a lot of talk about ‘pillars of engagement’. But there was never any agreement on how many there were or should be; there was no consistency in how they were described; and worse, no-one was using them in any meaningful, pragmatic way - for example, as a structure that usefully defines engagement from a disciplines/ activities and technology/tools perspective. We made our choices based on a very simple beliefs system: in our world there were five engagement fundamentals and if you focused solely on these you’d be 90% of the way to engagement success.
Our mantra back then was along the lines of not having to boil the ocean. But not being so narrowly focused as to have negligible impact either. Instead concentrate on doing five key things really, really well:
Those five elements were instantly familiar to everyone we talked to. They understood them, they got their value – individually and collectively – and they felt comfortable working in this sort of well-defined, familiar space. That was a massive win right there. And for us back at the ranch, they let us structure our conversations, steer our approach, and shape our technology as we looked to the next-generation version of the employee app.
From that moment the Five Pillars concept was enshrined in Engage. If we’d been a stick of rock, you’d have found Five Pillars in those little wonky letters running through us. Every business case was based on the 5Ps. Our technology development was defined by the 5Ps. The app was designed with tools that let you do everything 5Ps.
We soon had the 5Ps pitch down pat.
“Our engagement success teams help you extend and optimise your engagement capabilities - but it’s always grounded in the five-pillar philosophy. From the off, pillars give you a guiding hand, a starting point and an onward route. Given the catalogue of failed engagement projects out there, that either didn’t know how to start or where to go next or were simply overwhelmed by complexity or expectation, it is something to have a pragmatic route laid out - and the technology to make it happen.”
That was pretty much the gist, and when we ran through it you could see the penny drop – for some HRs it was like having a lifeline thrown to someone drowning, for others it presented the opportunity to be the hero: successfully driving change and improvement where others had fallen short.
There was something else we liked about our pillar selection - and that something was immediate impact. They all offered the chance to change things out of the gate. Too many engagement solutions and strategies offer the promise of positive outcomes - but only after months and months of data gathering and analytical insight, recommendation and sign-off, implementation and evaluation. That’s a long time waiting for improvement and payback; why can’t impact be immediate, why can’t you make a positive difference to both individual and organisation from the get-go? For anyone who has struggled to get traction with engagement and to get the results that they can take to the boardroom, it’s good to know that there is another way.
Destination Engage is available from Amazon in both paperback and eBook formats.