“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interactions. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
— Albert Einstein
While I’m a reinvention crusader who tirelessly promotes “best version” attainment — for people, teams and organizations — I temper my full-bore enthusiasm with down-to-earth common sense, critical thinking and realism. My cognitive skills and cautious curiosity especially kick into high gear when I hear about organization cure-alls, fads and “wow, gotta have it” technologies.
Now some technologies described as awesome, aren’t living up to their emotional hype, but they’re not “humanity harmful” either. Example: Fitbits whose sales soared to 20.8 million by mid-year 2015. While Fitbit’s goal is to promote an active lifestyle, and even though device usage is widespread, only 2.7% of Americans were recently assessed as being “healthy” according to a Mayo Clinic Proceedings study published by researchers representing Oregon State University, University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As one of four criteria, participants had to be active a mere 150 minutes per week. A whopping 97.3% failed to meet that basic criteria.1
Then there are those technologies that clearly pit innovation against workplace humanization. Let’s examine one such technology.
All appears to be perfect on the innovation surface
Enter Humanyze’s Sociometric Badges. As of late 2015, the badges had been introduced into 12 organizations including Bank of America, JP Morgan and Florida’s Celebration Health Hospital.2 Touted as being able to potentially increase employee engagement, decrease employee turnover and raise productivity by McKinsey,3 plus help companies optimize their communication, collaboration and innovation per Humanyze — all sounds absolutely incredible, right? Not so fast.
As I understand the technology, this behavior analytics solution includes wireless employee ID cards embedded with microphones, sensors and accelerometers that monitor and analyze interpersonal reactions and communication patterns. The deck of cards size badge is used to track people’s social activity at work — where they go within the company, who they talk to and how they interact. I was slightly relieved to read that:
- The badge’s microphones don’t record what people say (as of now), but they do track who talks to whom, how long they speak, how often they interrupt each other, tone of voice, speech volume and mirroring (when one person’s forward lean sparks a similar movement in the other)
- Employees must first sign a consent form, wearing the badges is voluntary vs. mandatory and people can “opt out” if they choose to (as of now)
- Employees who opt out can wear a placebo badge if they prefer not to be singled out (as of now)
- Boss’ don’t see individual data, just aggregate data (as of now)
- Bathroom time isn’t recorded (as of now)
So how exactly is the technology leveraged? Apparently one company created a robotic coffee maker that would wheel itself into a new central location to encourage “around the coffeemaker conversations” whenever it received a “not enough interactions occurring at this location” signal via a behind-the-scenes application crunching and analyzing the badge-collected data. To me, the concept of a stealth, on-the-move coffee maker is a bit creepy, but I can appreciate the logic and intent. Humanyze additionally enables management dashboards plus Fitbit-like individual dashboards so employees can manage to their own career development goals. As examples, employees can set up personalized, metric-driven feedback reports which measure their:
- Conversation time
- Body language
- Individual performance benchmarked against top performers (though not disclosing who the top performers are)
- Individual leadership behaviors benchmarked against desired leadership behaviors
In general, sophisticated technologies can also be used for surveillance purposes, theoretically reducing employee theft and security breaches, cyberloafing, goldbricking, productivity distractions and workplace harassment and bullying.
But before we blindly jump into the “all innovation is good innovation” pool…
We’re undoubtedly facing an interesting conundrum — where do we draw the line between society-advancing innovations and disruptive ideas that have the potential of objectifying and dehumanizing employees? Where does academia land on this topic?4
- “Excessive monitoring can itself curb productivity and innovation.” (Dr. Karen Levy, Postdoctoral Fellow, New York University’s Information Law Institute and the Data & Society Research Institute)
- “Overly aggressive monitoring and measurement leads workers to hide or simply refrain from any deviations from established practice — even those that benefit the company.” (Ethan Bernstein, Assistant Professor, Harvard Business School)
- “When we look at the workplaces in which surveillance is common, we see communities in trouble. What is missing in these communities is trust.” (Dr. Rita C. Manning, Philosophy Department Chair, San Jose State University)
- “While employers use monitoring devices to keep track of their employees’ actions and productivity, their employees feel that too much monitoring is an invasion of their privacy.” (Dr. Bahaudin Mujtaba, Professor of Management, Nova Southeastern University)
And they’re not alone in their thinking. Weighing in on companies that closely monitor worker performance, Simon Head, Fellow, New York University, commented, “Amazon pushes the workforce to its limits and beyond, in the interest of productivity.” In the same article, Quentin Hardy, The New York Times Deputy Tech Editor, asserts, “Innovation’s hallmarks of speed and change have created values that may have disastrous human consequences”. 5
While I align with the Ph.D.’s and Mr. Hardy, I contend that Humanyze’s badge solution in particular, poses a far more stickier and convoluted dilemma:
- Why would top performers want their “secret sauce” — their behavior-based intellectual property if you will — systematically analyzed, dissected and then revealed either within their own organization or to other organizations? And are there any potential legal ramifications, meaning, employees are paid to deliver positive outcomes. They’re not paid to be the objects of scientific analysis.
- While we certainly don’t want people recorded, how can a technology that doesn’t record what people situationally say possibly measure conversation quality and effectiveness?
- How can we be 100% assured that employee conversations aren’t being recorded and somehow leveraged without employee knowledge?
- Are badge-adopting organizations myopically focusing on treating problem symptoms vs. identifying and eradicating the root causes of organizational dysfunction driving chaos, churn and burnout? Bluntly put, a lot of time, money and mental calories could be wasted on technologies that don’t solve big problems.
- Are we morphing into dumbed-down versions of ourselves if/as we become reliant on technologies to superficially analyze then potentially dictate our behaviors?
- Are we letting leaders off of the accountability hook in that none of the badge’s capabilities that I’ve read about (so far), close the immediate supervisor-to-employee connection gap? If Gallup’s research is on point…
- Managers account for up to 70% of variance in engagement
- Consistent communication, defined as being reliable and meaningful, is connected to higher engagement
- Managers must help employees develop through their strengths
…how will badges truly increase employee engagement as McKinsey suggests? While the badge can measure frequency plus other variables, it appears to fall short in measuring communication reliability and meaningfulness. As Gallup asserts, “…mere transactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement.”6 Truth be told, I’m also leery of the McKinsey-cited Bank of America example, where the article claims that Sociometric Badges gauged and improved call center team cohesion with turnover dropping sharply as a result. My perspective — when we attract, hire, develop and retain inspiring leaders, we don’t experience chronic cohesion and turnover issues necessitating the purchase of avoidable technology. Granted, I don’t know the Bank of America details, but as previously suggested, let’s be 100% certain that we’re tackling problem root causes vs. superficial symptoms.
And yet one more perspective worth considering
As Harvard Business Review7 weighs in on technology innovations in general, they cite Metcalfe’s Law. Technology luminary Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet and co-founder of 3Com (later acquired by Hewlett-Packard), theorized that the value of any communications network (telephones, computers, email, texting, World Wide Web, etc.) is proportional to the square of the number of connected users on the system. In Metcalfe’s words, “The original point of my law was to establish the existence of a cost-value cross-over point, to establish critical mass.”8 HBR effectively weaves in Metcalfe’s Law to tee up “the dark side” of communication innovation — “As the cost of communications decreases, the number of interactions increases exponentially, as does the time required to process them.” Example: Compare 30 years ago, when busy executives would receive an average of 5,000 phone calls (pink message slips) per year to today, where executives are annually receiving approximately 50,000 combined voice mails, emails and text messages. While the cost of leaving messages has clearly declined, productivity has taken an appreciable hit. HBR’s productivity drill-down further revealed the following:
- A typical front-line or mid-level supervisor has less than 15 hours a week to invest in uninterrupted time to accomplish value-added work.
- A CEB study which concluded the following based on the last 5 years — “60% of employees must now consult with at least 10 colleagues each day just to get their jobs done, while 30% must engage 20 or more.” Net/net…”it takes 30% longer to complete complex IT projects, 50% longer to hire new people and nearly 25% longer to sign new customer contracts.”7
HBR makes a compelling argument — before organizations adopt new and innovative technologies, which would include Humanyze’s badges and other behavior analytic solutions, determine beyond a shadow of a doubt if the technology will, in fact, enable people to do more in less time. If technology merely makes work and collaboration easier, though in doing so, injects more unproductive time and waste into our already overloaded days, why exacerbate an already tempestuous situation?
Thought Provokers: Have you ever considered “the dark side” of innovation as you’re evaluating new technologies — solutions that have the potential to dehumanize employees, hamper productivity, invade privacy, erode trust, diminish accountabilities, delude us into believing we’re organizationally-progressing when truly we aren’t, and even thwart innovation? How will you respond if asked, or perhaps even told, to wear a behavior analytics device in your workplace?
Note: This article is intended to encourage innovative technology critical thinking. It is neither promoting nor discouraging specific or general behavior analytics technologies.
1 Cleveland Plain Dealer, March, 2016.
2 Startup Humanyze’s ‘People Analytics’ Wants to Transform Your Workplace, ComputerWorld, 2015.
3 Managing Talent in a Digital Age, McKinsey Quarterly, 2016.
4 Your Boss is Watching You: The Employee Monitoring Explosion, Psychology Today, 2015.
5 Employees Want a Lot More From Their Managers, Gallup, 2015.
6 The Most Dangerous Word in Tech, The New York Times, 2014.
7 Is Technology Really Helping Us Get More Done, Harvard Business Review, 2016.
8 Metcalfe’s Law is Wrong, IEEE Spectrum, 2006.