How well are your employees performing and what are they thinking? According to Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli – a leading authority on workplace performance, human resource management and the future of work – the best way to find out is to ditch the outdated annual survey and try more effective alternatives that give employers deeper insights.

In this just-published Wall Street Journal article, Cappelli explains why annual surveys are no longer effective and suggests better ways to get that much-needed feedback.

“The reason companies do these surveys – to find out what is going on in their workplace and with employees – remains as important as ever,” notes Cappelli. “But workers don’t like the surveys and often won’t respond to them, and most companies don’t do anything with the results anyway. And now, management has access to a host of other data that can tell it what is going on in the workplace far better and faster than the annual survey can.”

Cappelli says companies will get clearer insights by reviewing data already at their disposal such as employee chat rooms and discussion boards, emails and project management software which can show how quickly or slowly projects are moving along.

For more subjective information, he points to the usefulness of natural-language processing software for summarizing trends in performance-appraisal reports. But he also gives this advice with one important caveat:

“Careful companies let employees know what they are monitoring,” says Cappelli. “And as with surveys, necessary information should be gathered from email without identifying the authors, as it is only necessary to see average results.”

Beyond active assessments, Cappelli recommends retroactive research like reading employee exit interviews which can provide clues into workplace culture and employee preferences. He also recommends paying more attention to employee choices, for instance what benefits they choose and why. And in cases where decisions will apply to the group, he suggests setting up market-research style focus groups.

While he is not throwing away the idea of surveys altogether, Cappelli suggests conducting quicker pulse surveys that pose two or three questions at a time. But the most important part of the cycle is for management to make use of the feedback they gather, not just bury it or use it only when it makes them look good, says Cappelli.

“In a recent study, almost 60% of human-resources executives – the people who conduct these surveys – admitted that their organizations either do nothing with the results or deal only with the easy issues,” explains Cappelli. “Another survey, this one of middle managers who are close to the action, found that 27% never even look at the results of their annual surveys, a figure that is probably understated.”

With that reality in mind, management has three choices. They can discontinue the research and risk losing valuable information that can help grow their business. They can conduct the research and actively respond. Or they can bring in an objective third party who specializes in this kind of work – like Peter Cappelli.

For more insights from Professor Cappelli, check out his other articles below:

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