Employee Engagement 3.0: Humu Launches Nudge Engine

On the heels of LinkedIn’s acquisition of Glint, which lights a bonfire under the engagement market, I want to talk about something entirely different: Humu. Humu is the first behavioral change company focused on building an AI-based “nudge engine.”

Let me start with a little context. The employee engagement market, which is over $1B in size, has been around a long time. It began years ago when industrial psychologists like Fredrick Taylor and later Carl Jung studied the performance of people at work. After measuring the behavior of high productivity workers, these pioneers found there were a variety of psychological factors that made people happy, productive, and engaged. (Carl Jung, who was a disciple of Freud, did the original research which led to the Myers-Briggs assessment.)  These included relationships, a sense of purpose, and of course being in the right job.

Based on this work, in the 1970s and 80s vendors like Gallup, Kenexa, and others developed annual employee surveys for companies, which became the “employee engagement” industry. (It’s kind of changing in tone to “employee experience” now, but it’s still essentially the same idea).

Since then the market has evolved, and I see it moving in three major phases.

Employee Engagement 1.0: Annual Engagement or Climate Survey

In the beginning, this was a market of annual surveys, benchmarks, and year to year comparisons. When I worked at IBM in the 80’s the company performed an annual “Employee Opinion Survey” which was a massive project every year. Every manager was expected to sit down with their team and discuss the results, often leading to some being promoted and others being penalized. I found it inspiring at the time, and it helped IBM root out management problems and compare teams against each other.

Over time these annual surveys turned into benchmarking exercises. Companies compared themselves against their own data year after year, and over time a whole industry of “best place to work” lists was created. (Read more here about these contests and how they compare.)

Remember all this started in the days of paper surveys, so the process was slow and the results came back with a long delay. The results, while interesting, were not very actionable and once the internet became available we started to put this all online.

And the market evolved.

Employee Engagement 2.0: Pulse Surveys with Intelligent Action Plans

The next phase, which I call Employee Engagement 2.0, was the birth of the pulse survey. This idea, the ability to survey people at any time, was pioneered by innovators like CultureAmp, TinyPulse, CultureIQ, and a few others. And as it started a set of anonymous rating sites also appeared (Glassdoor, Kununu, and others), along with anonymous social networks like Blind (which lets people discuss work issues anonymously in public). This opened Pandora’s box to hundreds of tools that solicit real-time feedback, essentially creating a Yelp-like experience at work.

The results have been astoundingly positive (I wrote it in the article Feedback is the Killer App), and today hundreds of companies survey their employees quarterly, monthly or more. One of our healthcare clients surveys each nurse every Friday – then on Monday all supervisors get a report on how last week went.

The first generation of these tools was web-based, but now they’re mobile and embedded into many different applications (Slack, Microsoft Office, and performance management tools). Workday pioneered an “anytime feedback” tool in its platform and it was famously written about in a controversial article about Amazon.com in 2015.

Engagement 2.0 was an important step forward. It made employee feedback more actionable. Today companies regularly embrace pulse surveys (30% of companies pulse employees monthly or more), and many organizations let employees submit text comments whenever they want. Vendors like Glint, CultureAmp, Waggl, Energage and many of the talent management suites now have embedded pulse survey tools, making them easier than ever to buy.

(Several companies even let employees rate every meeting they attend, giving meeting leaders feedback on planning and time management.)

While initially companies were worried about all this feedback, the approach has become well accepted. I was in Russia recently and almost 80% of the HR managers I surveyed told me they pulse employees more than once per year.

Today you can buy tools that identify sentiment, segment feedback by role and tenure, and integrate feedback data with annual surveys, exit surveys, and other formal engagement programs. (Glint now offers this kind of longitudinal analysis, and others likely will as well).

And these 2.0 platforms are getting smarter. Kanjoya, a system that was designed to capture sentiment, is now embedded into Ultimate Software’s platform and automatically gives managers tips based on the comments of their teams.  Glint and ADP’s tools do the same. So as Engagement 2.0 continues to mature, the pulse model is being enhanced by AI and action plans, designed to give managers and HR curated recommendations about what to do.

I always encourage companies to think about Engagement 2.0 as a feedback architecture, so you can broaden your data set over time. For example four vendors I know now sell AI-based organizational network analysis (ONA) tools that look at email patterns, calendars, and the tone and mood of email and messages to sense mood, possible stress, and even fraud (KeenCorp, TrustSphere, Yva.ai, Microsoft). These are engagement tools as well.

Once you have a system like this, you can start to highlight areas of risk, stress, and even fraud.  (Vendors have developed models that can predict when an employee is likely to quit almost months before they leave, all based on communication patterns.) So the Engagement 2.0 market has become expansive, deep, and ever growing.

Employee Engagement 3.0: Even More Data, Intelligent Nudge Engines For Everyone

So what could possibly come next? … Using this data in a more proactive, useful way.

Think about it this way: now that we have all this data, why can’t we use it to give meaningful suggestions directly to the employees themselves? In stage 3 we are going to leverage the power of AI to turn feedback and ONA data into prescribed organizational change, using nudges suggestions to make work better.

Which leads me to Humu: a company focused on individual and organizational behavioral change.

Consider what happens at work. Whenever something doesn’t go quite the way you wanted, you wonder “what could I do to be more effective?” or “what could I have done in that situation to avoid that problem?” The engagement survey points out the problem, but it doesn’t really tell you what to do.

This is what Humu is all about: using intelligent nudges to make work life better.

Humu is a startup founded by Laszlo Bock, the ex-CHRO of Google. Laszlo, who I’ve gotten to know well over the last year, is building the next generation “behavioral change company,” because after all, that’s what engagement is all about.

Remember that the origins of engagement surveys were top down:  managers asked employees what they thought, and as a result, the managers were supposed to act.

Well, now we move to engagement tools for everyone.  This is what I think of as Engagement 3.0 – using feedback and data to give everyone tips to perform better.

In the case of Humu, the product is based on a “nudge engine,” which is a set of carefully developed rules, hints, tips, and suggestions that help people change behavior in small, meaningful ways.

How does it work?  After conducting a brief assessment, the system provides a set of diagnostics for managers, team leaders, and organizations to describe what’s working and what’s not. This is similar to most pulse and engagement surveys. But that’s where the difference ends.

Based on research from Ph.D. psychologists and others, Humu now uses this data to give each employee, manager, and leader a series of time-based “nudges” to help them change behavior at work. The nudges, which we think of as hints or suggestions, are designed to create behaviors that improve focus, well-being, teamwork, and other values. (Several other tools, like ADP Compass and Zugata, do this for skills and leadership development.)

Humu does this with a grassroots approach, activating everyone, not just management. So the nudges are designed to be complementary between managers, leadership, and independent contributors.

For example, to help create a sense of belonging at work, (help an employee feel valued as an individual, not just a worker), Humu’s nudge for a leader might recommend a manager ask specific questions of employees (eg. “Do you have plans you’re looking forward to this weekend?”, or “What do you think we should do to make the project move faster?”), focusing on specific topics that make an employee feel valued.

On the employee side, corresponding nudges may suggest an employee tell a personal anecdote in a team setting, write a colleague a letter of gratitude, or call out a team member publicly for their contribution.

The nudges are simple, easy to understand, and designed to add value in a specifically designed way. And as Humu’s engine sends more nudges and sees the results, the engine is designed to get smarter, the timing gets better, and they become more specific. (Kind of like having your own personal coach.)

This Approach Has Tremendous Potential

As much as I’m a huge fan of companies like Glint, CultureAmp, TinyPulse, Waggl, Energage, Great Places to Work, and many others, this 3.0 “nudge engine” has tremendous potential.

I just talked with several of Humu’s customers and the reviews are very positive.

sweetgreen, for example, is a fast-growing, seasonal, scratch-cooking restaurant with a mission of “connecting people to healthy food.” I talked with the head of organizational engagement Laura Lomeli PhD (who recently came to sweetgreen from Wal-Mart and Visa) and she is ecstatic with Humu. The company has around 3,500 employees and has just deployed Humu to its 200+ coaches and line managers with very positive outcomes. Here is what Laura told me:

First, the initial survey taught them that the company’s mission is well understood and employees feel a tremendous alignment with the company’s purpose. On the other hand, most of them are not sure of their career growth and definitely want more support for personal and career growth (This is common in young, fast-growing companies.)

The nudges, which go both to employees and managers, have been encouraging managers to ask people about their career goals, to talk about growth opportunities, and to give people ideas how they could expand their roles. Employees, in concert, are receiving nudges to have career conversations and ask their managers about how they could best develop and grow.

Laura told me their managers are thrilled, and for the first time in her experience as a retailer, the engagement survey feels like a positive process, not a way to figure out what’s wrong. She is about to re-run the core survey and see how well things have improved.

I also talked with Paul Higson, the head of HR for OfferUp, another fast-growing startup. He also was excited about Humu’s potential to be viewed as a positive force on the company and sees it as a replacement for their traditional 2.0 survey platform.

Not only is Humu positive and supportive for leaders and employees, it actually serves as a consultant too. If someone doesn’t understand a nudge they receive, they can send an email to Humu and get personal advice. So rather than rely on automated “action plans” or “learning objects” provided by engagement 2.0 firms, Humu is intended to be a behavior change consultant.

These are relatively small companies, so I have yet to talk with a massive company using the system, but my sense is that this is going to take off, and Humu has the potential to change the market in a significant way.

This Is Just The Beginning

While Humu is a young company and has yet to prove its system at scale, early clients are excited. The solution moves beyond a diagnostic into the realm of a personal and organizational coach.

Does it work? My experience says yes.

Compass, from ADP, uses a similar model. This particular tool, which was developed over the last few years, assesses your leadership style by sending emails to your peers and requesting feedback on different behaviors. It then gives you nudges to make you a better team-mate or leader.

ADP told me that the Compass tool, deployed internally, increased managerial effectiveness by almost 40% in only a few months. Why? Because it’s simple, actionable, and feedback-based.

Think about how this type of product makes work life easier. Rather than forcing people to take courses, talk with a coach, or read books and articles, these systems deliver solutions in the flow of work to let employees improve themselves.

Behavior Change Tools Are Becoming Common

It turns out we’re already becoming conditioned to use behavior change tools at home. We read notifications on our phone, we let Siri or other tools suggest directions and phone numbers, and as many as 30% of us use apps to nudge us to exercise, eat better, or take more time to sleep.

Think about the growth of health and fitness apps like VirginPulse, Limeaid, Fitbit, and Strava. They are essentially “nudge engines” also, capturing exercise and fitness activity and coaching us to eat, exercise, or sleep better.

The opportunities for business performance improvement are vast. Once Humu gets its nudge engine to work well, it can ingest data from sales productivity, customer service ratings, employee tenure, organizational network analysis, and just about every other piece of data we have about people at work. The engine might nudge a sales rep to improve in one way, a customer service agent in another, and a finance leader in a different way. Humu plans to make the engine very domain-aware over time.

I’m very excited. I think Engagement 3.0 is going to really add value in a massive way, and I want to applaud Humu for bringing this innovative new approach to the market. I’ll keep watching this space closely, and as always welcome your stories about how you’re driving engagement in your organization.

(Engagement Vendors in this market include Glint, CultureAmp, TinyPulse, Ultimate Software, ADP, CultureIQ, SurveyMonkey, Limeaid, Quantum Workplace, Qualtrics, Great Places to Work, Energage, Gallup, AON Hewitt, and many more.)

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