Big data versus small conversations

Great news for any businesses that want to keep a sharp eye on their employees. A chip invented by Hitachi keeps track of where employees go, who they’ve talked to, how dynamic that interaction was – even when, how often and for how long they’ve been to the loo. This past month, Swedish company Epicenter has announced they will plant a chip in 150 workers to track breaks and length of work. A whole new depth to ‘monitoring employees’ movements’. What joy.

This new technology for an old concept raises a knotty ethical question: how far do employers have the right to monitor employees?

Of course companies are liable to ensure productivity and to protect their interests, along with those of their investors and customers. But there’s a blurred line between vigilance and intrusion. Have we crossed it?

Accuracy about timekeeping turned into the tyranny of the punch card ‘on the clock’. Checking on information security metamorphosed to mass surveillance of emails and communication.

And now companies can monitor employees’ interactions and levels of energy in their conversations.

This level of scrutiny is unhealthy and poisons the environment of trust.

Echoing quantum theory, the very act of observation changes the culture that’s being observed. The data from Hitachi’s chip may be appealing to managers, but employees may feel a little like the cat in the box in Schrödinger’s experiment.

Fair enough, companies need valuable data for management decisions. But it doesn’t have to be a corporate police state.

People can learn a great deal by looking at the patterns of their day and interactions. We’re creatures of habit; many of us repeat a remarkably narrow pattern. We tend to exchange most dynamically, intuitively gravitate, with a few familiar people. This limits exchange of knowledge, cross-fertilisation of experience and the pace of innovation.

Data and studies have developed breakthroughs. The Allen curve, developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, showed that the most productive interactions between a group of engineers were limited to a few in closest proximity. This apparently holds true with modern technology. It helped designers to vastly improve the design of working environments and communications networks.

But a chip to monitor conversations?
Can it judge the quality of conversation?
Can it rate which were the most useful exchanges or ground-breaking ideas?

Sure, the data by which to plan the best outcome, or see how much it’s happening, is useful management information.

There’s the critical difference: management information, not management tool.

Oh, the beguiling appeal of numbers for culture and engagement, the lure of predicting how people will behave. Gloriously objective in number-form, the ticks in boxes, the tocks of clocks, conveniently distant. Removing the need for interacting with that pesky variable: human nature.

Meaningless without quantitative interpretation.

If you want a powerful management tool that will help you use this data, and help your people and your business to flourish – have a conversation.

If you want to know what employees have been up to, ask them. If you want people to deliver good quality work, trust them – and provide the means, infrastructure and environment in which they can get on with it.

In a world obsessed with big data Look at the size of my analytics! It’s easy to overlook the small data from daily exchanges. This is what can make a real difference to employees’ lives and management effectiveness.

You don’t need to tag your employees.
Just have a conversation.


[First published in CorpComms magazine.]