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Reflecting on surveys for organizational feedback


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Discuss the usefulness and limitations of survey feedback. What are the key issues/problems the OD practitioner has to be aware of while feeding back data?

Usefulness of survey feedback (when it is effective) (Cummings & Worley, 2009, pp141-2):

  • Motivation to work with the data: organization members have to believe in the purpose and efficacy of the feedback system, We are finding it extremely important for the surveyed population to get feedback on HOW the data is being used
  • Structure for the meeting: Because of the challenges and possibilities of interpreting data and connecting it to action plans, there needs to be a thoughtful and satisfying means of examining discussing, interpreting and then acting on the data, in a process that satisfied all the tiers in the organization
  • Appropriate attendance : people affected by the interpretation of the data should be represented in the meeting: This can validate the assessment of the data and the legitimacy of the action steps decided upon
  • Appropriate power: feedback process must have the authority to get the data needed for action, but also the authority to act as suggested by a fair reading of the data
  • Process help: Because the sense-making of the feedback process stakeholders is a political process with connections to the deepest values of the organization, it is necessary that the process be above board and managed/led properly.  Social & political justice is an important part of legitimizing the decisions that come out of the feedback process. We don’t have to agree with every decision but we must be satisfied by the process that got us to the decision.

These elements are timely as we are conducting a process action team project for the college’s feedback system this month.

Limitations of survey feedback (Cummings & Worley, 2009, pp 147).

  • Ambiguity of purpose: If the purpose of the feedback process is not clear, then it stands to reason that the design of the experiment, the survey questions, the interpretation and the focus of action steps. Having an explicit plan that is clearly understood upfront seems non-negotiable before we proceed any further along the feedback path.
  • Distrust: it seems to me that distrust could come from either purposeful or accidental  circumstances. We might distrust the leaders’  true purpose or the skill of the practitioner in achieving the technical standards of designing and administering the survey properly. Either source of the distrust will clearly sabotage the ultimate actions that derive from the feedback.
  • Unacceptable topics: Culture, tradition, values, leadership-imposed constraints, or perhaps even an agreement among stakeholders to hold certain areas off limits may give us only par5tial insights. These off limits areas may not be critical to the system, but in complex social organizations it may prevent us from achieving a holistic and satisfying understanding. My experience has been that the off-limits areas really degrade the usefulness of the survey.
  • Organizational disturbance: we know from science that the act of measuring alters the system in some way so we must take into account how, so we must make trade-off decisions about how much to measure and how often, and in a manner that minimizes the cost of querying.

Key Issues/problems: It seems to me that whether your survey data and feedback processes are useful or problematic depends on how your system  “scores” on the 9 qualities of the survey data identified in Cummings & Worley,( 2009, pp139-141). I think that the organizational members perceptions of these  are as important as the technical merits of the survey/experimental design.

  • Relevant: do the data connect with the area under study?
  • Understandable :  are the stakeholders satisfied with the clarity?
  • Descriptive : do the data give us meaningful and identifiable characteristics
  • Verifiable: are the data reliable and repeatable?
  • Timely: can we get the data quickly and within a timeframe that they remain valid?
  • Limited: is the scope is narrow enough to allow focus and analysis?
  • Significant: are we working on important issues concerning core processes and values?
  • Comparative: do the data allow us to make meaningful distinctions? And infer cause and effect so that we can take actions?
  • Unfinalized : do the data lead us towards significant action? Or dlo they leave us at a dead end?

(Cummings & Worley, 2009).

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