Tomorrow’s technology, yesterday’s insights

Sometimes what the tech world comes up with has already been tried and rejected and really doesn’t need to be resurrected — like the Taylorist view of the workplace. Sometimes the solutions have already been there for a long time.
You just need to take a look around. At your fellow humans.

In his recent book The Formula, Luke Dormehl describes how

“… there is a dedicated team within Google called the People Analytics group, whose job is to quantify the ‘happiness’ of employees working for the company. This is done using ‘Googlegeist’, a scientifically-constructed employee survey, which is then mined for insights using state-of-the-art proprietary algorithms.”

“An example of what the People Analytics team does occurred several years ago, when Google noticed that a larger-than-normal number of female employees were leaving the company.”

Dormehl describes how the People Analytics group “drilled down with data-mining tools” for other numbers that might shed light on the problem. Was age, for example, a factor? Or something else? Well, indeed it was:

“[The] group discovered that this wasn’t so much a ‘woman’ problem, as it was a ‘mother’ problem: women who had recently given birth were twice as likely to leave Google as its average departure rate.”

“The most cost-effective answer, it was concluded, was to increase maternity leave from the standard 12 weeks of paid absence to a full five months. Once the problem had been identified and acted upon, the company’s attrition rate for new mothers dropped by 50 per cent.”

Dear Google, congratulations on deploying your unique state-of-the-art data mining algorithmic search and analysis tools to discover this.

However, the difficulty of combining motherhood and having a career is something that we in the Nordic countries, for example, have known about for over fifty years. We found out largely through a process called ‘democracy’ (you might want to Google it).

(We also instituted the kinds of benefits you came up with, but on a national level: so that individual companies wouldn’t need to spend money discovering and solving such problems for themselves.)

“Similar data-driven insights”, Dormehl says, are used to answer “a plethora of other questions” to “maximize happiness”. Will the workforce be happier with a salary increase or a cash bonus, or shorter working day?

Tech companies are trying to convince businesses that Big Data is the latest ‘must-have’, and that HR should make high tech their be-all and end-all. Why, then, are all their supposedly exemplary discoveries so totally underwhelming?

At the Bank of America, employees got to wear a new brand of hi-tech nametag with miniature GPS, microphone, and camera. The device recorded not only location and movement, but also sound and video — both somewhat blurred or muted (it was claimed) yet sufficient to convey the general mood, the level of agitation, the gist of a conversation, and even a person’s posture.

The bank showcased three crucial insights from this study:

• Breaks were good for the company, because

• during breaks employees talked to each other, and

• discussed and solved problems related to work.

“My God, Holmes, how do you do it?!” … he sighed ironically.

And at a Florida hospital, nurses were tracked with wearable GPS devices during their working day. A strange pattern appeared when data was analysed: the ‘RTLS visualisation’ showed how nurses spent time racing back and forth between quite distant parts of the hospital, since medical supplies were commonly located far from wards. Or a nurse might be assigned to care for two patients on opposite sides of a hallway, which “could be a reason to move one of those patients, or juggle assignments”.

Again, I have a modest proposal: you’ll find out the same thing by simply asking the nurses.

Or even better, by spending a day walking in their shoes. Then you might even realise that your business would run more smoothly if the nurses were allowed to organise their work themselves, rather than being ‘assigned’ tasks by someone — or something — with no first-hand, real-world knowledge of their environment.

On the other hand, the reason for this infatuation with surveillance technology might be that management actually consists of extra-terrestrials, who have enormous difficulty understanding how people work, and wear disguises so poor that they would immediately be spotted if they ventured into the workplace.

GPS trackers may raise concern over surveillance and privacy issues, and rightly so: but the big difficulty in these specific cases (and countless related cases) is not the actual surveillance.

It’s the neo-Taylorist notion of a clueless workforce that needs to be led by an all-powerful, benevolent leadership, one that makes decisions on their behalf (and Dormehl partly sees this).

In my view, the dream of “Big Data in the Workplace” thrives in that hole in the American corporate mind where more human ideas — such as decent trade unions, a commitment to conversation and dialogue between employees and management, and empowerment of employees, even giving them some say over how their workplace is designed — should rightly be found.

And in an even broader context, the problem is the tech industry’s monumental ignorance of society and history — which makes it treat every problem as something that is solvable only by using yet more technology. Even problems that have been sorted out long ago.

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Jonas Söderström (@jonas_blind_hen) is a senior information architect with Scandinavia’s leading UX agency, InUse Experience. He’s a member of the Swedish Government’s Forum for Usability and Accessibility in ICT, and a frequent keynote speaker at international conferences. He blogs in English at stupidsystem.org