Employee recognition software success hinges on training and support

Gartner predicts that employee recognition software will reach mainstream adoption by 2016. Learn how to train managers and sustain user interest.

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Companies have a multitude of ways to thank customers for their loyalty, such as coupons and special events. But what about recognizing employees for their work?

"People are your most important assets," said Corinne Selk, recognition and engagement specialist at Lehigh, Utah-based semiconductor company IMFlash. "So why is it that making people feel valued and appreciated is such a foreign concept?"

Yvette Cameron, research director for HCM technologies at Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn., agreed that companies could stand to improve in the area of employee recognition. "I think we are lacking in genuine acknowledgment of the efforts of individuals across the organization," she said. "We struggle to demonstrate alignment between what the company needs and what [employees] are doing every day."

This dearth of recognition takes a toll on employee engagement, which in turn impacts customer satisfaction and company profitability. And with awareness increasing among executives that employee engagement is an important business driver, interest in social employee recognition technology is climbing, Cameron said.

"We're seeing significant adoption by medium- and large-sized organizations," she said, adding that Gartner predicts adoption of social recognition technology will reach the early mainstream by 2016.

So, as social recognition systems begin to appear on the radars of forward-thinking organizations, it's a good time to review tips from HR leaders who are already using the technology. Read on for user and expert advice on how to choose, implement and use social recognition and rewards technology.

Consolidate rewards budgets to invest in a unified employee recognition system

Where will organizations find the money to spend on employee recognition technology? Cameron pointed out that while most companies already have an employee rewards budget, it's usually distributed across several disconnected initiatives.

"The spend today is probably anywhere from 1% [to] in some cases, 2% of payroll, so there is significant money being spent on these programs," she said. "The challenge is it's hard to show a strong ROI [return on investment] against those pieces."

Cameron gave two reasons for consolidating the budget and investing in a unified social recognition platform. Not only is it easier to measure the impact of these systems through embedded analytics, but standardizing on one platform also enables recognition to be viewed on an enterprisewide basis, which amplifies its impact.

This latter reason was the driving force behind Save Mart Supermarkets' adoption of social recognition technology from Achievers. "We [had] several recognition programs for separate things, but we were hoping to centralize all the budgets and get something everybody could see -- that would bring all 17,000 employees together on a single platform," said Josielynn Crudo, director of talent acquisition and learning.

But couldn't an organization build such a system in-house? IMFlash's Selk said the "make vs. buy" debate was an obstacle at her company at first. However, people on the "make" side were converted after realizing "this is not our core competency ... and it's hard to get [IT] to support it because they're busy," Selk said. The company ultimately chose Globoforce's employee recognition platform.

When vetting vendors, Gartner's Cameron said companies should consider the vendor's core business: For instance, some place technology at the forefront, while others focus more on consulting and providing ongoing marketing. "Make sure that what's motivating you to implement these programs ... is aligned with how they're making money," she said. "Are you purchasing and enabling technology, or are you purchasing a marketing firm? They're fundamentally different approaches."

She also said companies should opt for Software as a Service offerings, as they're inherently more agile. "We're learning a lot about engagement, [so] you want to make sure you're getting a vendor whose solution is able to change quickly as you and the market change."

Selk said Globoforce's thought leadership played into IMFlash's decision. "We wanted to work with a forward-thinking company, [and] I got the feel from them that they could speak intelligently about the psychology behind recognition," she said. "We wanted a partner, not just a vendor."

Manager and executive training critical in implementation

Both Selk and Crudo said implementing their systems was relatively painless. Instead, training before deployment proved to be the greater challenge.

IMFlash decided to launch a social recognition initiative based on a consistently low response to the statement "my supervisor recognizes me in a meaningful way" on an employee survey. Thus, it was important that managers learn how to use the system effectively. "We did some manager forums to get them informed and trained on it, [and] with Globoforce's help, we created three webinars -- one for employees, one for managers and one on best practices," Selk said.

Save Mart trained managers on how employee engagement affects business outcomes and the role recognition plays in increasing engagement. But because the company's workforce is almost entirely offline, Crudo said getting employees to use the system was an additional hurdle.

The company spurred adoption by creating a portal that employees had to visit to view important information, such as benefits packages. This portal linked to the Achievers platform, and also displayed a recognition newsfeed. Today, the system has a 91% user activation rate, Crudo said.

And executives shouldn't be left out of the training efforts. While users will often gravitate toward the system naturally, Gartner's Cameron said executives need to be educated on how and why to participate.

"It's not enough to say, 'I've paid for the budget, so someone else execute,'" she said. "If leadership is not participating as well, these programs will be a failure." This is a step many companies overlook, she added.

Plan for ongoing support to sustain interest in social recognition systems

Another consideration both Selk and Crudo mentioned was the need for ongoing supervision of social recognition platforms. "It is a living, breathing program that has to be managed as such and continually measured," IMFlash's Selk said.

Crudo said Save Mart had a sustained engagement plan in mind from the start, and each month, employees are required to go into the portal to complete a task. "This is not just one of those systems you can launch and let sit," she said. "Until recognition is really part of the culture, you have to have a momentum plan to put it in their faces."

In Cameron's view, the tools vendors have at their disposal to sustain interest are another reason not to build these systems in-house. In addition, she recommended designating a community manager to sustain interest and provide governance.

She also stressed that leaders should prepare for the cultural ramifications of adopting social employee recognition technology. "You are implementing a social tool, and by its nature it means information is real-time [and] transparent," she said. "People might not feel comfortable being recognized, and yet there it is."

To prevent cultural whiplash, Crudo suggested releasing features gradually. "[Don't] go all out all at once -- it might be more of a deterrent than anything. You can turn on all the bells and whistles and really confuse your users," she said.

Patience and persistence are critical in managing the culture shift, according to Selk. "You cannot underestimate how much effort it will take to get some people on board. Some will see the vision much quicker than others," she said. While Selk was aiming for 70% participation in the system's first year, adoption surpassed 85% within three months.

IMFlash's employee engagement survey scores have also risen since the system was implemented, and Selk said such statistics can go a long way in fostering buy-in.

"Get the data to speak for you," Selk said. "Our scores on [the] particular set of questions that we were using as our baseline jumped, so the naysayers [saw] we weren't just blowing smoke."

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

This was first published in December 2013

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