The end of the annual employee engagement survey

From AirBnB, to Adobe, Slack and GroPro tech companies are using a hi-tech engagement measurement platform. Now Culture Amp has opened for business in Europe.


It was bound to happen – the arcane world of the employee attitude survey is having its Uber moment. There is a new kid on the block and it could just revolutionise the way we survey staff. I caught up with the founder of Culture Amp Didier Elzinga, an exuberant Australian who is the founder of the business and its key evangelist. His background is unconventional to say the least. Before getting into the world of industrial and organisational psychology (I-O psych for short) he ran a successful Hollywood digital effects company for 13 years working on movies like Harry Potter.

His father is a psychologist and as he was running and building his creative business he became obsessed about how to use data to run and organise his business better.

“I made a ton of mistakes as we grew fast and I started to become interested in how businesses are organised. I looked at the psychometric models and realised that the way the data was being used was broken; it has not been touched in 25 years. The core methodology was really strong but no one had stopped to solve the difference between Industrial and organizational psychology and the technology, and between design and technology. For me it was the ability to go learn more about something that I’m passionate about.”

And so Culture Amp was born. Culture Amp is a software platform that allows you to run surveys across your organisation that harnesses the latest thinking in user experience. Think of it as big data meets HR with a Hollywood twist.

Didier argues that big data has revolutionised businesses before; first with the use of financial data with balance sheets and profit and loss in the 1930s and 40s, but these were lag indicators showing how a company has performed – not where it is going. The second wave was measuring the customer, how loyal they are and what makes them engage with a brand. Marketing Directors made their careers mining customer data – much as Terry Leahey did with Tesco’s Clubcard.

Now the third wave (as Tesco has proven to its cost) is all about Brand as a promise to a customer and Didier believes that only Culture can deliver that promise.

“To deliver that brand promise you have to put culture first. But there is not the same support, tools and ecosystem as there is for the marketers. Why should the marketers have all the fun? We asked ourselves why can’t we build a market analytics platform but for culture?”

The result is Culture Amp a platform founded not only by technologists, but with a solid foundation in Industrial Psychology.

“There are two points at which innovation happens: when it is first brought in and then when it becomes cheap to deploy. Take 3D printing: when it first arrived it was amazing, then the cost of the innovation came down to the point where it is significantly below the value that it provides and this creates a torrent of innovation across the board. That is the space we want to play in and is the mission for our company, which is to make the idea of people analytics accessible to many.”

The technology to do people analytics at a reasonable price has arrived; what is special about Culture Amp, claims Didier, is the expertise behind its design.

“An example is not including a negatively keyed item, which is a common question in an employee survey. There is a long tradition of including items in questionnaires that are phrased both positively and negatively:

• Do you enjoy your job?

• Do you see yourself working here in 5 years?

• What would make you leave?

“The major reason for alternating item wording is to minimize extreme response bias and acquiescent bias. It is a technique used in consumer research to get to the truth about someone’s feelings toward a brand or product.

“But if you take the view that these are people you have been working with for some time and that you generally trust them then you have to treasure their value. When someone is taking a survey and you reverse key the question it massively increases their cognitive load and so what was taking ten seconds to answer now takes a minute. You have to ask yourself if that trade-off is worth it.”

The principle behind Culture Amp is to make the survey far easier to fill in – in fact to make it an enjoyable process as possible. Didier also felt the way employee survey data was previously presented was not ideal.

“Most of the problem is not getting the data, it’s presenting it. Most traditional engagement reports are horrible. I saw one 30 person company that had a 300 page engagement report; no one is going to do something with that. The question is how do you surface the data that people really need to look at?”

To help spread the word in the UK Culture Amp has recruited Nick Matthews who joined Culture Amp from Microsoft where he was working on Yammer and O365 adoption. And he hosted a UK ‘people geek’ event at the offices of AirBnB.

A people geek is key to the thinking at Culture Amp. The idea is that anyone working in engagement should become a people geek who marries a culture-first approach with the disciplines of data by not just doing something once but forever following the cycle of learn, act and repeat.

I went to a people geek meet-up on the subject of how office design influences culture. It was held at the HQ of AirBnB where Nick Matthews interviewed representatives from that company and Moo and AutoTrader, which enjoy stunning new offices that reflect their brands. Among the people geeks in the audience were quite a few communicators, like Tony Stewart from ScarlettAbbott and Matt Partovi of Culturvist, so the community extends well beyond HR practitioners.

Didier and his team see themselves as a product company inside a community rather than as engagement consultants. He makes the analogy with marketing.

“Twenty years ago many organisation employed marketing agencies to collect the data and do the analysis and recommend a strategy, which the Marketing Director would adopt. Now most of that data is collected and analysed internally. Everyone has their own Google Analytics, their CRM programs. They want to own their big data internally because it is so important in understanding how to run a business.

“We think that is where people and culture is going to. Organisations should actively engage in collecting and understanding the data around their own people. So it cannot be a once a year consultant. It has to be a platform, a capability that your organisation can own.”

“In consulting my profit margin depends on me being the smartest person in the room. In software my profit margin is dependent on making you the smartest person in the room. So to do that we have to build beautiful, easy-to-use software, but we also have to create a community around there where people help each other and take the software in directions that even we did not anticipate.”

So Culture Amp claims to scale what was previously only available to large organisations who could afford to implement huge surveys from Gallup or Ipsos MORI, across all their employees. Over the past 3 years they have surveyed over 2 million people in 600 companies through 6,000 surveys, which gives them benchmarks that can then be applied to companies of all sizes. But the key is how that data is used inside the client company.

Chloe Hamman is Insight Strategist at Culture Amp

“Considering 360 feedback surveys, in a traditional HR environment, HR owns the data and an individual has to go there or to their manager to access it – say during an appraisal. The platform allows that data to be owned by the individual.  With the support of HR they can then take more ownership over their own development. We want to challenge how 360 surveys are used and change the ways individuals see their relationship with data and culture.

“I find it rewarding working with new tech companies that are in the early stages of growth as they tend to be much more agile in how they respond to the data. These tend to be the types of companies we target.  More traditional and often larger clients can have fairly ingrained habits, particularly in HR, because they have been doing things a certain way for years, this can make culture change more difficult. Not impossible, but certainly more challenging.”

Their fastest growing market is the UK and they have offices in Melbourne, San Francisco, New York as well as now London. The company has grown from 14 to 90 people in just one year and the company is well funded with $16m of backing. The premise is simple: to sign up 10,000 companies $10,000 a year and create a $100m turnover business.

“Will companies still need consultants? Sure – but many of the things consultants are doing today can be done better with the right technology and the right data. Ellie Gates, who is responsible for Talent Development at Box, says that if she gives people technology and then has to train them then she has failed. She wants software that people just know how to use intuitively and that is what we provide.”