Thursday, June 4, 2015

We See You More Than You Know

We are living in intrusive times. It is generally assumed that Americans cherish their privacy, just not enough to force their elected representatives to do anything about it. So we live with cookies, analytics of just about every electronic communication we send or receive – a world of “metadata” and micro-data that have more commercial intrusions than even Big Brother NSA – and there is so much information posted about us in the ether that anyone with the right tools can find out just about everything about each one of us.
People working in offices, using company computers and telephone lines, often sitting in open or semi-open space, have private moments in personal communications… or so they think. Aside from reading the corporate policy information that most new employees just gloss over or forgetting that none of their communications on company equipment are remotely private, it is just too easy for an employee to get caught up in a private moment online or on the phone in the office, forgetting that in most circumstances, all of those communications are open to employer review… as well as legal discovery in any relevant litigation.
In fact, how to analyze those “in-your-computer” files and information – to determine how efficient you are in your job (to make you more efficient… or perhaps to determine that you should be fired) – has become a big part of the “people analytics,” a metadata trend that slams office privacy to the wall.
“Even though it might be easy to count the hours by looking at your Outlook or Google calendar, until recently, it was hard for organizations to compute those kinds of numbers on a companywide basis. In many companies, that’s led to a situation where managers invite employees to an ever-increasing set of recurring status updates, brainstorming sessions, and weekly check-ins. Kick-offs and roundtables; team meetings and all-hands meetings.
“Rank-and-file cubicle dwellers might privately gripe they’re spending too much time in meetings they don’t really need to attend, and higher-ups might silently wonder why there are always so many faces around the conference table, but workers are naturally loathe to ask their bosses to stop bringing them to meetings. Managers, meanwhile, are wary of marginalizing their staff by taking them off the invite list.
“‘It’s like everybody’s trapped,’ says Ryan Fuller, the CEO and cofounder of "people analytics’ startup VoloMetrix. ‘I think most companies are in a vicious cycle of this getting worse and worse.’… Fuller believes data can change all that, and solve a few other workplace headaches too. His Seattle-based company builds software that mines information like employees' Outlook calendar entries, email headers, and instant messenger logs to help companies figure out how their employees are spending their time—how much time salespeople are spending with customers, which divisions of the company are staying in touch by email, and how much time employees are spending in meetings. With those numbers, Fuller says companies can make changes, like bridging connections between loosely connected divisions that could stand to talk more, or setting goals for time spent in meetings that give everyone license to revisit those invite lists.”, May 22nd.
Gee, Mr. Fuller, what a nice notion. I don’t have to attend meetings so much anymore. How warm and fuzzy. Except for the part about tearing through my computer files to measure who I am and what I do. The information that may make my work life more acceptable might also open up my private life or generate information to get me fired. Hmmmm. OK, there is a notion that these analytics don’t delve into individual bits of information, the messages, the contacts, etc., but generate macro-trending metadata that measures overall efficiency and effectiveness. For companywide trending, many firms that go through this data trail promise 100% anonymity for the workers. Somehow, the potential for abuse doesn’t seem to leave my consciousness. But it’s not just electronic communications and information that are open to such analytics.
“A Boston-based startup called Sociometric Solutions goes even further, looking beyond email records and meeting schedules to actually monitor how employees are interacting in face-to-face conversations using wearable electronic badges that track who’s talking to whom. The badges are also capable of registering the tones of voice and body language workers are using.
“The company’s been able to help its clients find productivity-boosting patterns, says cofounder and CEO Ben Waber. One financial-services firm learned that back-office employees benefitted from interacting more frequently with their customer-facing colleagues, and another client, a pro sports team, got insights into how, and even where in the stadium, their top salespeople converted game-going fans into season ticket holders.
“‘If you spend 5% more of your time talking to customers in this part of the arena, here’s how much more money you’ll make,’ Waber says they were able to advise sales staff… The company makes sure to get individual workers’ consent and takes steps to protect privacy, says Waber.” Ooooh.
As you walk by businesses, your smart phone may be communicating with these vendors, triggering messages, even changing the electronic billboard around you. You are connected deeply, whether you want it or not, and whether you know it or not. How do you feel about this level of “interactivity”? And exactly what do you think we should do about it all? If we could!
I’m Peter Dekom, and younger generations have grown up with the notion that they are always linked, always watched… but is it comfortable for any of us?

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