Mercer Sirota marks the end of an era

Sirota joining Mercer is an end-of-an-era moment. Sirota is the last of a golden generation of employee survey firms to join a big consultancy and the move takes place as technology re-writes the rules for employee research and people analytics. As someone who has worked in the industry, it’s a moment that I feel is worth noting.

Sirota was founded by David Sirota in New York in 1972. It was the first of a group of firms focused on running employee surveys that emerged in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. International Survey Research (ISR) was founded in 1974 in Chicago by Jack and Gay Stanek, Valtera was established by Bill Macey (also in Chicago) in 1977, and Gantz-Wiley was founded by Jack Wiley and Gail Gantz in Minneapolis in 1986.

These firms had their origins in industrial psychology and sociology. They hired PhDs as project directors and applied scientific principles to the study of employee satisfaction, commitment and (latterly) engagement. Informed by management thinkers like Peter Drucker, Frederick Herzberg and Edward Deming, they tackled issues to do with deteriorating industrial relations, work quality, organisational change and globalisation.

These companies made a great contribution by introducing a discipline for listening to employees in many large organisations. The primary tool was surveys. Often, they were long surveys, sometimes over 100 questions in length. In the early days these were administered on paper, which required a supply chain to oversee printing, distribution and data entry. They built relational databases and developed their own benchmarks (in competition to consortium approaches). The growth of this group of firms was largely driven by geographical expansion. The founders travelled the world with briefcases full of example surveys and a well-honed pitch.

The Internet provided the first great disruption. The firms moved into online surveys and electronic results reports. (When I joined ISR in 1999, results reports were still printed and bound, boxed up and shipped on a pallet to the client. It’s the kind of thing I tell my kids to amaze them). Online technology opened up new opportunities for different kinds of research and there was a blurring of the lines as the survey firms aligned themselves with partners to measure culture, to move into customer satisfaction and to run assessments, and (after Gallup’s bestseller Break All The Rules) employee engagement.

By the 2000s, the firms had ageing owners, they faced new competitors and they required significant investment in technology in order to deliver an engaging online user experience. Gantz-Wiley was acquired by one of those new competitors (Kenexa) in 2006. (Kenexa itself became part of IBM in 2012). Valtera was acquired by CEB in 2006. ISR was acquired by Towers Perrin in 2007. And finally now, after an earlier management buy-out, Sirota is part of Mercer.

As I have written elsewhere, we are in the middle of a period of huge creativity in employee research. Surveys may still be part of the tool kit, but in order to measure and improve culture and engagement, surveys provide data for integrated people analytics. The focus has shifted to ongoing, continuous listening and to using insights to shape employee experience. There has never been a better time to do great employee research.

I am not a historian of the employee survey industry. (And let me apologise now for any inaccuracies above). But it does feel like an apt case study of an industry which has faced a period of creative destruction. And I am excited to see what will follow this golden generation of firms.

Tags: #EmployeeSurveys #EmployeeEngagement

This article was first published on LinkedIn on December 9, 2016

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *