LEARNING COVID-19 ACTION RECORDING: LISTENING TO THE WORKFORCE, WITH THE BROAD INSTITUTE'S KATE O'BRIEN - 8/13/20

This week’s Learning and Development action call hosted special guest Kate O’Brien, Director of People Analytics and HR Operations at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Broad Institute was launched in 2004 to improve human health by using genomics to advance our understanding of the biology and treatment of human disease, and to help lay the groundwork for a new generation of therapies. O’Brien was interviewed by i4cp CEO and co-founder Kevin Oakes. Here are four highlights from the call:

  1. Agility has led to good results, and this has in turn increased employee pride and engagement. Broad was well-positioned to provide support of various kinds during the COVID-19 pandemic, but to do so they needed to exercise agility and pivot some areas of operations. Initially the organization’s labs were shut down and employees that could work remotely were sent home. But leadership then took a step back and asked what is Broad uniquely positioned to do to help the world during this time?

    As a not-for-profit Broad Institute is well-suited to coming up with solutions to problems quickly. As an example, they transformed their genomics platform and data analysis organization into a COVID-19 test facility—standing it up in only two weeks. They became a 24x7 testing facility, with PhDs on the line doing testing work. Broad also switched their research focus to the genomic underpinnings of COVID-19, e.g., why does it impact some people more than other people? They also partnered with area nursing homes, school districts, and universities to put testing programs in place—and this made a real differences, e.g., to halt the spread in some of the nursing homes. Not surprisingly, employees at Broad are very proud of all of these efforts, and their engagement and recommendation scores are higher than ever, with O’Brien noting that “our scores are so high it is almost statistically impossible to increase them.”

  2. People Analytics is about making better judgments. Called People Insights at Broad, people analytics is used to help leaders make better decisions. HR and administration in general at Broad is designed to remove roadblocks so that their scientists can do good science. When O’Brien joined about five years ago they had relatively little people data, so she was able to start from scratch and bypass a focus on simple reporting (that many organizations get stuck in) by creating strong data tools to measure behaviors that matter. She is focused on measurements to test existing people analytics theories to validate them (or not) and create stories specific to Broad, all with an eye towards improving decision making and performance.

  3. Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) has been a focus at Broad Institute. O’Brien said that at Broad they focus on active data gathering for ONA, meaning leveraging surveys and similar means to directly determine who collaborates together, in what ways, how frequently, etc. They can then map the work relationships on things like brainstorming, connection, emotional support, etc. to determine who are the major hubs for getting work done. (They avoid the more passive approach to gathering data from email or meeting attendance data, as that can lead to false conclusions and bad inferences.) So far she has done some small ONA projects, but is working to get leadership buy-in on broader efforts. A current focus is on Inclusion and Diversity, where ONA can help determine potential mentor relationships. There is also interest in using ONA to better study remote work and collaborative overload.

  4. A shift in listening strategy has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. When O’Brien joined several years ago, Broad had a fairly typical, once a year employee engagement survey. They shifted to a more frequent listening strategy called Broad Pulse, and during COVID-19 they are now running the pulses monthly. They still ask for standard engagement questions as an anchor, but now also ask questions that are a bit more personal, such as: How overwhelmed do you feel? How anxious do you feel? Are you a caregiver? Of children? If so what ages are they? Do you feel financially insecure? These questions allow for timely insights for the leadership team to be more responsive. The new platform also allows O’Brien to ask quick follow-up questions that drill down into specific best practices that good employees and leaders are doing. These responses can then be aggregated and shared back out as a learning resource. This is key to providing immediate action in response to polls and surveys, which is important to combat fatigue with such instruments.