evolved thinking

Benchmarking – an unhealthy obsession?

Tom Caley

Tom is Evolve’s Head of Product Development & Innovation, and is a passionate advocate for people and customer experience, with a focus on unlocking the potential in others.

Having spent a great deal of time in both customer and employee insights, I’ve participated in numerous lively debates around the importance of benchmarking. To some, it’s an absolute must-have, eclipsing almost any other factor in a listening programme. But I’m not convinced. 

In the customer space, sure. Having appropriately contextualised benchmarking data (i.e. local competition, same industry, some form of supporting qualitative data etc.) can be highly instructive, provided that it doesn’t distract too much from what our own customers are specifically saying about us. 

I have more complex feelings about external benchmarking in employee engagement. As a people leader over the years I’ve received more than enough annual engagement reports; lots (and lots) of pages of charts, with comparisons to vaguely hinted at “similar size organisations”. Who are these organisations? What is their comparability to my own? Is the comparison being made valid? It is generally impossible to answer these important questions. My concern is that meaningless comparisons lead to performance anxiety. Anxiety is a negative emotion that doesn’t motivate, it distorts and distracts from a sense of purpose and confidence. 

As a team member, I’ve sat in playback sessions from my managers around the same. Yet, if I think about the amount of time spent poring over the benchmarking data versus that spent looking at our own feedback and reconciling it against the specific circumstances at play in our team or organisation, it’s pretty negligible. 

To me, spending time looking at external comparisons can akin to standing on the pitch in the middle of a game of football, staring at the scoreboard. If I stop and look at what’s happening on the pitch, I can see the run of play, who’s in space, who is not, if I’m about to be tackled (probably, yes). All of these factors are clearly more instructive in determining what’s needed to try and affect a victory. 

But I can understand why we might feel the need for such data. Particularly at the start of a listening programme, we might look at our numbers and wonder what they really mean. Until we have established a baseline and can understand the direction in which we’re moving, we might feel a lack of a “so what” factor. 

In these instances, I think it’s much more useful to look at all of the available data points in turn and try to grab as fulsome an understanding of the bigger picture as possible. Internal benchmarking can be more useful. We know the contributing factors at play in our own organisations so are much better placed to understand the meaning in the difference than we might be with external ones. 

But, if we’ve done our listening properly, the real gold is in the accompanying comments. The number presents one view but until we triangulate it with the “why” from the comments, as well as the direction in which we are trending it’s just part of the picture. So why do we tend to obsess so over numbers? 

I think a lot of it still comes from the financial reporting approach to business intelligence. Think about your own organisation. I’d be willing to bet that there is significantly more resource, energy and attention given to generating and understanding financial data than there is for customer or employee engagement (possibly combined). Financial reporting has been around for immeasurably longer and people understand it, feel comfort in its relative certainty and supposed objectivity. 

Customer and employee feedback—particularly of the qualitative kind—by nature brings a degree of ambiguity. There is nuance to it, the varying viewpoints, experiences and communication styles of hundreds or thousands of different people. 

We can often feel a lot less comfortable with ambiguity, or by being given license and responsibility to follow our own paths. We might indeed look to the relative certainty of numbers or the “safer” notion of wondering what everyone else is doing. I’m sure the explosion of social media in the last decade talks to many of the same motivational factors.

If we have access to external benchmarking data, then great! Let’s add it to the mix. But let’s not be distracted by it. We have a heap of our own information we can use to form a more robust understanding of the situation. There’s definitely no need to panic if we don’t have it. Context is everything when it comes to interpretation.

Use the data from your listening program and your innate understanding of your own situation to create that full picture of the game as it plays out around you. Connect with your teammates and understand their points of view. Agree on achievable and relevant objectives and work together on hitting these. As you conduct more measurement, your own baseline data will begin to tell you if you are pulling the right levers. This is ultimately far more valuable than any arbitrary benchmark measurement.

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