Nick Webb

The Survey Industrial Complex


This article includes excerpts from my book. Happy Work on how to create a culture of happiness. In this article, I will explain the importance of getting far better, actual insights on employee satisfaction that go beyond the outdated and disingenuous employee surveys of the past.


The proclamation that surveys are a “scam” may seem a bit shocking, but in most cases, it’s simply true. We have created a “survey industrial complex” of organizations that have built the perfect business model. These busy industrialists develop a survey algorithm, charge an organization to have their employees complete the survey, and then report out to the client in a dashboard their employees’ level of job satisfaction. Although this approach is a lucrative business model, it’s also an incredible disservice to the organizations that spend tens of millions of dollars attempting to glean insights through this outdated and fractional model. The survey industry is massive, and it’s also incredibly profitable: GlobeNewsWire projects the global online survey software market to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.04 percent from $4.870 billion in 2019 to $10.162 billion in 2025.[i]

Knowledge Sourcing Intelligence estimates the global online survey software market will grow even faster, at a CAGR of 16.04 percent to reach a market size of $13.796 billion in 2026. Big players in the online survey industry include Zoho Corporation Pvt. Ltd., Medallia, Confirmit AS, Inqwise, SurveyMonkey, Campaign Monitor, QuestionPro Survey Software, and Qualtrics. You cannot ignore the power of data monetization, the process of collecting data from the target audience to develop greater insights into the market and generate revenue with this data. The data monetization industry uses many tools including online survey software to collect the data for monetization. This market is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 6.02 percent (source: KSI) and will create a significant opportunity for the online survey software market.[ii]

This massive industry is essentially an online vending machine that delivers minimal value at an extremely high cost. The companies that produce surveys love this model because it’s profitable, and truthfully most organizational leaders like it because it’s the easiest and fastest way to check the box on employee insights while creating authoritative-looking graphs and charts.

Knowing Where to Tap

The benefit of a survey is to glean insights as to where to direct detailed inquiry.

You may have heard this story. A woman’s car rolls to a stop in front of a mechanic’s shop. She tells the mechanic her engine suddenly quit. The mechanic lifts the hood of the car. He then pulls out a hammer and taps on a particular part of the engine. He then asks the woman to go ahead and start the car. Instantly, the car roars to life. The woman asks the repairman how much for the repair, and he replies, twenty dollars and ten cents. She asks why the unusual price? He replies that it’s ten cents for the tapping and twenty dollars for knowing where to tap.

The benefit of a survey is to learn where to tap to create innovations and improvements. If a survey doesn’t deliver those insights, it’s nothing but worthless data. In our practice, we use a system that focuses on what each employee loves and hates about their job in order to determine their net level of satisfaction. We refer to our approach as the Net Employee Experience (NEX). We believe this approach is superior to traditional methods, but we also realize that it would be disingenuous—in other words a scam! – to suggest that a survey alone would give our client the information that they need to be able to drive a cultural transformation of happiness.

The Holistic Approach Towards Real Employee Insights

Surveys can be very useful in identifying areas that need additional investigation.

For example, when you go to your doctor for an annual physical, they will run a complete blood panel. Once the blood panel returns, the doctor will look to the right side of the blood panel to identify areas that are outside of the normal range. For example, if your total blood count turned out to be low, it would tell your doctor that they need to identify the reasons why your blood count was low.

The blood panel is not a diagnosis but a screening tool that suggests areas of inquiry. If the results raise a “red flag,” then the real work of the doctor would begin. He or she would then have to determine the reason for the low count. Perhaps your iron level was too low, or there was some potential internal bleeding. Again, the blood panel was just used to find out if anything was out of range so the doctor could begin deeper inquiry to potential problem areas.

The same facts are in play when it comes to running an employee engagement or satisfaction survey. Based on the survey alone, you will not have a diagnosable understanding of your employee’s current sentiments. You’ll need to drill deeper into areas that you identified as being problematic in your survey.

Most surveys look at the wrong things. They try to determine an employee’s willingness to promote you or an employee’s level of engagement. These factors in many ways are irrelevant. What we really need to understand across the various anatomical features of employee happiness is where your employee stands from the perspective of the love/hate sentiment.

So how do we get comprehensive insights about your employee’s state of happiness that also help us target areas for further inquiry? It turns out there are three dimensions to gaining the insight we need, yet most companies stop at one—the survey. Following my doctor analogy, they get a blood test and simply report what items are out of range. Then they simply move on without deeper inquiry and without a treatment plan.

The Three Dimensions of Employee Insights

The best organizations in the world leverage a holistic approach toward gaining insights about their employees’ current state of happiness. This approach provides far more accurate data and important insights that go far beyond the screening-tool survey approach. The benefits of a holistic approach include significantly improved insights and actionable discoveries that result in rapid improvement in overall quality of work life.

1. Pre-Survey “State of Play” Analysis

Continuing with my medical analogy, a good doctor won’t begin requesting tests until he or she has completed a thorough consultation. The consultation will look at known factors. For example, if the patient is overweight, this will impact the types of tests that the doctor needs to conduct to make certain that they screen for known disease processes in overweight patients. This would include cardiovascular, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia, just to name a few. The consultation may further discover that the patient has orthopedic problems as a result of their weight, which may require a specialist such as an orthopedic surgeon to inquire about the physical limitation challenges. The consultation may discover that the patient is suffering from depression or stress. Correspondingly, the doctor would want to know more about that in order to offer mental health resources.

In other words, the doctor would never just say, “Thanks for coming in, let me run the standard blood test and I’ll get back to you with the results soon.” Yet that’s exactly what we do with traditional surveys. We are indiscriminate about the way in which we dispatch meaningless and generic surveys.

The best organizations frontload the process with a comprehensive state of play analysis that looks at the unique and special challenges and opportunities of each organization. This allows them to architect a state of play analysis to get to the insights that will move them towards optimal health.

A key question that must be asked is whether the organization is ready for change. It’s like when you construct a skyscraper, the first thing you need to do is perform a complete analysis of the subsoil and bedrock to determine its suitability for a new building. If it’s suitable, then you proceed. But for various reasons it may not be suitable, in which case you must do remediation until it’s ready. Likewise, if the people in your organization are resistant to new ideas—even ones that will measurably help them and make them happier—then your first task must be to change the culture and perhaps even provide training, so that you can then present them with new information they’ll embrace.

2. Survey Design, Evaluation, and Reporting

I’m surprised that the overwhelming majority of employee surveys look very much the same as they did in the 1950s. They ask obvious questions that employees typically answer dishonestly or inaccurately. But don’t blame the employees; they’ve been put into an unfortunate predicament. The surveys ask them to answer questions about the organization that provides their paycheck, and they’re not particularly likely to say anything derogatory even in so-called anonymous surveys. Most employees suspect that if a survey is dispatched digitally, it can easily be traced back to them, and any adverse comments could be detrimental to their career pathway.

Many organizations architect surveys that don’t take into consideration a thoughtful analysis of the organization and its current state of readiness as it relates to cultural transformation towards happiness.

The right way to do this is simple: Design a survey that embraces a comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of the organization’s challenges, problems, opportunities, and needs. Then you evaluate the survey based on the overarching assessment of the organization, which allows you to create specific recommendations to target areas for additional inquiry. This is how you get the best insights and create an amazing results-focused happiness strategy.

3. Collaborative Ideation

I’ve had the great honor of facilitating collaborative ideation sessions and what we call happiness hackathons. These programs are incredibly effective at soliciting authentic and hard-hitting insights from employees. Employees are emboldened by other employees to answer questions more bravely about what’s not working and what really needs to happen in order to build a culture of happiness. We also leverage individuals in group interviews in order to get useful insights from employees that we aggregate along with our survey data to build out specific recommendations on what needs to be done quickly to move the happiness needle within an organization.

Take Action!

  • In business, if you want to manage a process or outcome, you need to measure it over time. If you want to increase the level of happiness in your organization, then you have to begin by measuring it. Having a baseline, you then take positive action to influence it, and measure it again at some future date.
  • Different things and situations make different people happy. Some people hold a low-skills job and they stay with it year after year because they like it. Others need leadership and responsibility to be happy. You have to recognize and leverage these differences.
  • Sadly, some managers view employee misery as an asset and proof they’re squeezing every last drop of productivity from their employees. If this is your mindset, do yourself a favor and change it. Your investors will thank you.
  • By asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, the traditional employee engagement survey process can actually aggravate and provoke increased employee disengagement.
  • Most surveys do not provide a diagnosis but serve as a screening tool to suggest areas of inquiry. They can tell you that an employee is unhappy, but they don’t tell you why. The Net Employee Experience (NEX) system focuses on what each employee loves and hates about their job in order to determine their net level of satisfaction.