Review: Free Open University Employee Engagement​ Training Course

James Scott - CEO and Co Founder of Thrive gives his feedback on the Open University's Employee Engagement course.

The explosion in free online learning resources has been one of the positive consequences of the pandemic helping people make the most of any downtime and even re-skill to be better prepared for the months and years ahead. 

With a high interest in Employee Engagement, I was intrigued by the Open University’s free course on the subject delivered via their Open Learn Platform which as an aside, contains over 1,000 free courses, so you’re bound to find lots more to interest you there too.

This free course is an adapted extract from the Strategic Human Resource Management module of the Open Universities MBA and explores three key themes: employee engagement, employee involvement and collective aspects of employee relations.

To put the importance of employee engagement into context the course makes a number of key points:

  • Engagement is defined as ‘a set of positive attitudes and behaviours enabling high job performance of a kind which is in tune with the organisation’s mission’.
  • In economies increasingly dominated by service industries, good customer relations – built by engaged employees – are central to success.
  • People are the key differentiators in achieving competitive advantage
  • Employee engagement is therefore central to the ideology and practice of SHRM

“Employee engagement is attracting a great deal of interest from employers across numerous sectors. In some respects it is a very old aspiration – the desire by employers to find ways to increase employee motivation and to win more commitment to the job and the organisation.

In some ways it is ‘new’ in that the context within which engagement is being sought is different. One aspect of this difference is the greater penalty to be paid if workers are less engaged than the employees of competitors, given the state of international competition and the raising of the bar on efficiency standards. A second aspect is that the whole nature of the meaning of work and the ground rules for employment relations have shifted and there is an open space concerning the character of the relationship to work and to organisation which employers sense can be filled with more sophisticated approaches.”

After studying this course, you should be able to:
  • Identify and describe the meaning of employee engagement and its different components
  • Appreciate the strategic issues associated with employee engagement
  • Describe the changes in systems of employee relations
  • Appreciate the impact of structures of management and ownership on employee engagement
  • Reflect on the current state of employee engagement in an organisation.

Here’s a detailed review I wrote up after completing the course myself recently…

Getting set up & what to expect!

If you are new to the OpenLearn platform registration only takes a couple of minutes to create an account after which you’ll be able to access all their other courses too.

Once logged in you are presented with a very clear guided learning flow that you can step yourself through at your own pace. The course cites a time commitment of 10 hours to complete although I feel this will be very much dependent on your own learning style, speed of reading and the amount of time you wish to spend on the exercise elements of the course. There is no exam or testing involved so it is very much left to your own self-discipline to work through the course and digest it all – as the saying goes; you get out what you put in!

Diving In!

Getting into the core of the content then, the three main modules are entitled “Experiencing Engagement”, “Finding meaning and engagement in work” and “The contemporary emphasis on employee engagement”. Here are my highlights of each in turn:

MODULE 1. Experiencing Engagement - a set of activities that encourages you to reflect on your own experience of employee engagement.

I found this section to be particularly useful in highlighting the changing nature of employee engagement as we progress through various life stages from: “young and promiscuous”, “steady and driven” to “content and loyal” – a great reminder that we can’t just apply a one-size-fits-all approach and need to tune into the different wants and needs of the differing work-life cycles. For example, to engage the young and promiscuous category where career progression is key you should major on training and career development (promotion) opportunities to ensure you are their first port of call rather than seeking a new job elsewhere!

For anyone trying to convince their colleagues or indeed build a business case for employee engagement within their organisation the next few paragraphs would be helpful…

“for large companies, the task of engaging employees in the organisation is inherently more difficult. It therefore becomes more important to identify and monitor the factors that specifically drive engagement for their employees. It is too easy to feel like a ‘small cog in a big wheel’, but finds that the large organisations that manage to make their staff feel like they are part of the fold and that they are making a real difference reap the rewards in terms of individual and team productivity.
Employee engagement is an individual’s connectivity to an organisation. It is made up of both their emotional and rational attachment to the company, its work and its performance. Employee satisfaction is, as the HR community recognises, no longer enough, it is engagement that is critical to aligning people with strategy.

Research has shown there is a strong link between employee engagement, and harder organisational metrics such as customer service, productivity and financial performance. The best organisations understand these links and are focused on identifying the factors that will drive stronger engagement levels among their employees.”

To help put this theory into practical steps, I found the reference to the 2007 YouGov PeopleIndex employee engagement study useful suggesting that there are a number of core factors driving employee engagement. These hold true across organisations in different sectors, large and smaller companies and at various stages of the employee life cycle:

1. Recognition: do managers and the company as a whole make people feel valued by telling them when they have done a great job and celebrating their successes?
2. Reward: are people fairly rewarded for their efforts and do they see the effort-reward balance as a two-way street?
3. Change management: how well do companies communicate about change (and the rationale for it) and how well do they engage employees throughout the company in the change process?
4. Performance management: how well do organisations deal with poor performance and how good are they at rewarding great performance differentially
5. Leadership: how well do senior executives in the organisation outline the vision and strategy for the company, communicate and engage their people with it and lead by example in terms of the behaviour and values needed to deliver the vision?

This first section of the training concludes with a thought-provoking video of Will Marre on The Future of Work and Employee Engagement citing the best firms are focused on identifying the factors that drive engagement. The holy grail of those factors is where employees believe their work is changing the world – in that scenario their performance is 2-3 times higher!

So connect people’s work to a truly just cause to see a significant gain.

To learn more on that specific subject I suggest you get Simon Sinek’s book – The Infinite Game which I reviewed a while back here: 

MODULE 2. Finding meaning and engagement in work - which considers the different meanings that individuals can derive from work.

I found this section to be a challenging contrast between the somewhat comical take on the modern comfortable workplace given by Alain de Botton that many of us are lucky to experience versus the hard, physical labour suffered through economic necessity with videos of workers accounting for their challenging experiences in the car, food, fishery and electronics industries. It really made me reflect on what it means to be ‘engaged’ with work in these environments.

De Botton suggests that the ‘problem’ of engagement is a modern phenomenon. In the past, we worked because we had to. Work was hard and hours were long. Questions of engagement in this context were almost irrelevant as the result of not working hard was severe physical deprivation.

‘Management’, such as it existed, simply saw its role as ensuring that levels of output were maintained. To use the common adage, management was all stick and no carrot.

Now, according to de Botton, there is something of an inversion. Management is now so preoccupied with ‘motivation’ and ‘engagement’ through the soft rhetoric of the HR department, that work has become almost more pleasurable than the rest of our life.

Moreover, we seek meaning and self-identity through our work. We have expectations that our goals should be realised through this work and are dissatisfied if they are not.

But we should always remember the harsh working environments faced by many workers around the world especially in the developing world, many of whom are making the cheap products that sustain our modern economies and enable us to enjoy more pleasant work and personal lives.

MODULE 3. The contemporary emphasis on employee engagement - looking in more detail at the claims made for employee engagement and reasons why it is considered particularly important to contemporary businesses.

I found the “four enablers of engagement” identified in the MacLeod report referenced in this section to be particularly succinct and useful;

1. A clear sense of where the organisation is going and how their role fits with that
2. Really engaging managers providing clarity & reinforcing the messages
3. Real employee voice – don’t just listen for the good news
4. Bringing together the stated values of the organisation and the desired/required behaviours.

Even though the MacLeod report was written in 2009 following the financial crash of 2008 don’t write it off as being dated, in fact the opposite is true. The report underlines the need for employee engagement during challenging times – just like we’re experiencing right now with the pandemic!

Wrapping up

In summary then, I would recommend the course - the content is excellent and easily consumed, thought provoking and overall a good investment of a relatively modest amount of your time.

My main suggestion to improve your learning experience would be to organise yourself a small study group amongst of colleagues or peers – a shout out on LinkedIn might be a good way to gather a bunch of like minded people. Then, just like a book club you could get together on Zoom and discuss the course content & exercises in particular. I believe you would get much more from the experience as a group and it would actually be a nice feature for OpenLearn to add to their platform to help people form groups but in the meantime, just hack yourself a group and learn together!

Anyway, I hope you found this review useful and if you have any thoughts, feedback or suggestions let me know.