Is Your EAP Endangered or Enduring? - Journal of Employee Assistance Vol. 48 no. 1 - 1st Quarter 2018
Maintaining Relevance as an Organization
By Don Jorgensen, PhD, CEAP
How is your EAP coping with what are no doubt some of the most challenging business changes you have ever faced? As Thomas Friedman noted in his recent book Thank You for Being Late, “the current age of acceleration demands that organizations either adapt to rapidly increasing change or they will soon become irrelevant.” To survive EAPs must successfully respond to the major global shifts affecting their workplace and the organizations they serve. However, to not only survive but thrive in the marketplace, EAPs must also determine where their organization sits on the “relevance curve” and what actions are necessary to re-position themselves for success.
In other words: Evolution is guaranteed; survival is not. According to Friedman and other global analysts like Ito, Howe, and Susskind, three fundamental shifts are having a major impact on businesses worldwide; the Technology shift, the Market shift, and the Demographic shift. How is your organization adapting to the demands of each major challenge?
The Technology Shift
The pace of technological evolution is increasing exponentially, and EA organizations are challenged to keep pace. Until recently, smaller EAPs offered agility, customization, and personalization as market differentiators, while larger EAPs promised economies of scale and efficiency. Although advanced technology and large data management is now accessible to all EAPs, it is conversely easier for larger providers to offer customized service delivery. (Think Amazon.) Worldwide access to smartphones has fundamentally altered both the means and expectations of access and service available anywhere, anytime. Value is no longer found in technological advantages but in the quality of service delivery and response, leading to the next major shift.
The Market Shift
EAP sellers used to offer “quality, speed, or value – pick any two.” Today’s purchasers expect all three. As workplaces remain in flux and as traditional job types continue to shrink or disappear, service needs and response continue to evolve. Booksellers, hospitality, and taxi industries have demonstrated that competitors can emerge from any direction, from any type of competitor, of any size, at any time. Online, free counseling services market directly to businesses, and what had been a competitive edge for an EA provider may no longer be relevant. EA providers must adapt to survive.
The Demographic Shift
Millennials will likely comprise over 50% of workforces worldwide by 2020 while a large percentage of workers age 50 or older remain in the workforce. As workplace demographics evolve, new leaders emerge, and market pressures increase, the impact of these major shifts is further increasing the need for a workforce – often smaller with specialized skills (e.g. technological) to deliver new services. Such demands may broaden the gap between generations within the workforce, creating serious leadership challenges for employers – including EAPs – and the organizations they serve.
The locations and distribution of workforce teams and individual workers are evolving as well. By 2022 India will become the most populated nation on earth, surpassing China. Experts estimate that during the next 30 years half of worldwide growth will occur in just nine countries, including five on the African continent.
Winning the Battle for Relevance
Just how can an EAP win the ongoing battle for relevance?
Step One: Determine Where Your Organization Sits on the “Relevance Curve”
In his book, Winning the Battle for Relevance author Michael McQueen describes a business cycle common to both successful and failed businesses. Similar in shape to a bell curve, the relevance curve progresses through four phases.
* Phase One – Every organization begins in a state of low relevance when they enter the marketplace as a largely unknown entity. EAPs that survive this early period rise along the curve as they begin to earn success and a positive reputation.
* Phase Two – As the EAP gains momentum they enter phase two, a rising period of high relevance.
The organization has now become known in their field. In fact, the more successful an organization becomes the more likely it is that competitors start “borrowing” their methods or models. During this period of success and prominence the organization reaches the top of the relevance curve, which represents a tipping point. The danger for many organizations at this point is arrogance or complacency, as they fail to meet the increasing demands of technological or demographic shifts.
* Phase Three – If arrogance or complacency occur, a downward slide (often unnoticeable at first) begins into irrelevance. Poorly led EAPs remain in denial at this stage, perhaps attributing a decline in business to a bad quarter or a bad year. All organizations reach a crisis (or opportunity) point somewhere during this phase, in which re-evaluation and reinvention become necessary for survival.
* Phase Four – EAPs that fail to “self-diagnose” themselves continue to fade from irrelevance to obsolescence.
The life cycle of most organizations can be tracked in this manner. Consider, for example, the current placement of political parties, labor unions, or service clubs on their respective relevance curves. All have reached (or failed to recognize) crisis points in the current decade. The impact of this accelerated age has also caused these business cycles to become significantly shorter, and the failure of an organization to recognize a crisis point and adapt accordingly leads to a shorter life span as well. (Think Blockbuster Video vs. Netflix, for instance.) To maintain or regain market relevance the smart organization should conduct a periodic update of their own relevance curve followed by an in-depth review or self-diagnostic.
Step Two: Conduct a “Self-Diagnostic”
Surprisingly in this age of acceleration, the second critical step is to hit the pause button. An internal reassessment allows the EAP to conduct an in-depth examination – well beyond the typical Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis that often serves as simply a rote exercise for many businesses. Conducting a serious internal review allows a mature organization to reconnect with its core beliefs, rethink assumptions, and re-focus its strategic direction accordingly. A critical review should address the following:
* Who and what are you? For example, instead of, “What is our service?” Ask, “What does our service stand for?”
* Why do you do things that way? If you answer, “Because we’ve always done it that way,” you are not only alienating the younger workforce, but virtually guaranteeing that obsolescence is near.
* Why do you perform a given service? Examine each service function or activity in detail. Are you conducting “brown bag seminars” for dwindling audiences or spending more on paper-based reporting or training materials, for example? If a service component is no longer desired or profitable, consider dropping it.
* Where are you most vulnerable? Are you one decision or one new competitor away from obsolescence?
* Can you offer services faster, cheaper? Chances are, someone can outdo you in these areas. If so, what do you offer that enhances value and transcends speed and cost?
* Can you prove your relevance? First, what systems have you established to track and report meaningful outcomes and return on investment (ROI)? Second, do you know what outcomes are desired or expected by your respective customers or purchasers? If so, how are you able to demonstrate your value in a way that is meaningful to the purchaser?
Step Three: Reposition Your Organization
Once an honest self-diagnostic is completed, the third and final step requires an external focus and demands that the EA provider engage and communicate directly with the client organization. The answers to these challenging questions will guide EA leaders toward successfully redesigning or repositioning their organizations, services and delivery systems, and the methods used to connect with current and prospective clients. These questions are:
1. What motivates or impresses potential clients? (About any vendor or contract, not just you.).) Getting answers to subjective “thought” questions requires the use of multiple tactics to acquire valid, reliable, and useful response data. Whether you choose to utilize survey tools or direct contact, the keys to success include asking the right questions (use this section as an outline) and choosing your sample carefully
Do not limit your survey only to EAP users. Ensure that your respondents include a diverse group of leaders, non-users, and employees across age, geographic, and gender groups. Do not limit your responses to checklists, yes/no or Likert scales, but encourage comments and suggestions to enhance survey value.
2. What disappoints or frustrates them? (Do not make assumptions.) Ask not just about the EAP services and function specifically, but also add questions about other services for which the EAP may provide a solution or identify new opportunities for service.
3. Who else is currently meeting their needs? (Remember, your next competitor could come from any field, anywhere.) Does the organization speak highly of specific consultants providing services relevant to EAP services, e.g. training, supervisory consultation, health advisors or conflict management??
4. How are you currently seen or perceived? (Perception is everything. Are you out of sight; out of mind?)
Is your EAP easy to access? Are you viewed as an insurance add-on, a disciplinary component or a responsive service partner? Are you known or valued at all by certain workplace groups? For example, how effectively are Millennials utilizing your services?
Recent EAP field survey responses have included statements like: “They don’t know who the EAP is,” “They don’t know if they have the time for the EA provider” “They don’t know if the EAP is worth the time.” Thus, any analysis of survey results must explore the question: Why is the EAP not relevant to them? It is true that an EAP is only relevant to the extent that it meets the needs of the client organization.
5. What are the knowledge or skills gaps, or unaddressed future needs? (This is the information used to identify unique opportunities or unmet demand e.g. supervisor skills training or teleservices.) You may also gain data relevant to this item from question #2.
6. Who are you not connecting with? (Consider age, gender or other worker demographics, leaders, managers, business sectors, etc.)
Despite the ongoing technological shift human beings still crave connections. The demographic and marketing evolutions have created a new opportunity and demand for training and consultation for so-called “soft skills” such as team leadership, communication, and social reasoning.
How are you communicating with your customers? If you currently limit communications to written reports or electronic means, seek direct (video) or face-to-face contact when possible. Presentations by the EAP at annual meetings or similar events provide opportunities for delivery of outcomes and ROI, discussion of future needs and service response, and strengthen human connection and business relationships.
7. What is unique about your EAP? Every organization must be able to answer with clarity “Why choose your organization over another?” In this accelerated age of business what made your EAP unique three years may no longer be true – or relevant – today. Maintaining relevance requires every EAP to regularly re-examine their USP (unique selling proposition) or UVP (unique value proposition.)
Next, however comes the critical question: “Does this difference - your UVP - matter to the companies or organizations you serve?” If not, then your organization has hit or moved passed a critical point on your relevance curve and survival demands a serious organizational review. If your EAP is valued by the clients you serve then all is well – for now.
In essence, business no longer just involves transition, business is transition. The successful ones embrace it. To maintain relevance during this constant state of acceleration the smart EA organization does well to recall a comment attributed to Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest that survives but the most adaptable.”
Don Jorgensen is the owner of the Arizona-based Human Factor Consulting. He has over 25 years’ experience as owner of a multi-national EAP, speaker, and consultant in the areas of leadership, team development, and change management. He received the 2016 EAPA Lifetime Achievement Award and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friedman, T. (2016). Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
McQueen, M. (2013). Winning the Battle for Relevance. Melbourne, Australia: Nextgen Group Pty Ltd.