Analysis: Slicing and dicing OPM’s workforce survey

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With the release of its 2012 Employee Viewpoint Survey results, the Office of Personnel Management focused renewed attention on federal workforce issues. And once again, the Partnership for Public Service has refined and consolidated OPM’s findings into its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings to clarify the significance of this data. Teaming up with Deloitte Consulting, the Partnership has overlaid the survey results with an agency benchmarking and performance assessment tool, convenient for federal leaders and job seekers alike.

But the Partnership’s rankings, however useful, tend to suck most of the oxygen out of workforce planning by diverting attention from the practical value of OPM’s data.

The 2012 survey attracted 687,000 respondents, a remarkable increase from the 250,000 participants in 2010. For any large enterprise, public or private, a 46 percent response rate is enviable. The resulting data repository is a human resources management ace in the hole.

The operational value embedded in this data is not lost on OPM, but it should be just as obvious to agency leaders. OPM underscored the potential for data mining the results in its slice-and-dice demographic report, which parses survey findings question by question among categories such as gender, ethnicity, age and management level.

For agency leaders interested in exploring the morale and attitudes of their workers, the Excel version of OPM’s survey can prove invaluable. Even the most basic analysis reveals what is important to key demographic groups.

Take question 69: “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?” The responses to this question were extremely positive across the board. On question 69 alone, consider the value of being able to compare the balance or imbalance of perspectives among men versus women, whites versus minorities, managers versus the rank and file, or new employees versus seasoned veterans.

Hypothetically, a human resources official could discover that 61 percent of the agency’s male respondents are satisfied with their jobs, versus 70 percent of women, or that satisfaction levels drop sharply among workers with six to 10 years of service and workers at field offices versus headquarters. These findings could be operational cues to determine why certain groups responded the way they did and develop management approaches to correct negative variances.

Agencies could dig deeper still into attitudes across sets of related questions and nested categories of employees. OPM already has pointed the way to the former approach through its use of thematic categories that roll up responses into designated indexes: leadership and knowledge management, performance culture, talent management and job satisfaction. Agencies could develop Excel data probes that assemble and compare their workers’ responses to customized combinations of questions.

A logical next step might be to nest demographic categories to individual or to indexed questions, resulting in an even more refined view of workforce attitudes. A hypothetical example of this nested approach might address how male Asian-American team members who are age 40 to 49 and work at headquarters respond to a half-dozen questions related to morale, satisfaction and their perceptions of their leaders’ performance.

But this stratum of analysis can get dicey.

HR managers and agency leaders can improve performance by learning more about workers’ attitudes, perceptions of leadership and identification with mission. Acting on these revelations can boost morale, productivity, innovation, teamwork, buy-in to mission and recruiting strategies, and employee engagement.

There’s a potential downside as well. If agencies adopt a data analytics approach that’s heavy handed, employees might begin to view the workforce survey as intrusive, particularly if HR managers delve too deeply into small segments of the population. This could sour employees on participating in the survey. A slippage from OPM’s 46 percent response rate would be unfortunate, given the high potential for understanding and managing agencies’ workforce culture.

Put to reasonable and practical use, analysis of the data could help reverse the tide of unfavorable responses to one of the survey’s most revealing questions -- No. 41. Only 42 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work.”

Bob Duffy leads Insight Consulting LLC, a Columbia, Md.-based firm that provides research and creative services in talent branding and corporate culture. He can be reached at bobduffy@insight-hq.com.

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