"Quantified Self" vs "Quantified Workplace"

This thread has migrated over from Twitter - for background, click this link (https://twitter.com/eramirez/status/334689311763091456 ) to get Ernesto’s tweet suggesting the migration, then click “details” to see the thread that preceded it.

Synopsis: I saw a more than a couple presentations at #qseu13 that talked about using either self-tracking or employee-tracking (or both) in the workplace. The topic came up again this morning, when Maneesh asked on Twitter, “Quantified Self? How about a Quantified Workplace?” (see https://twitter.com/ManeeshJuneja/status/334599222760460289 )

My first thought was that there’s a big difference between these two things, mainly because there’s no power differential between you and yourself—whereas there’s a big difference in power between you and the employer who tracks you while you’re at work. This power differential makes me uneasy, and it’s one of the main reasons that I think “workplace tracking” belongs in a conceptual category other than “self-tracking.”


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This is a super valuable discussion to have for our community. Thank you Whitney for starting it here.

I want to quote the article that helped spring this discussion by Manneesh on twitter . The article, which appears to also be somewhat of an advertorial* by the VP of marketing at Enkata, includes this interesting section (emphasis mine):

[quote]Is this creepy? **It shouldn’t be as long as employers approach it in the right way. Keystroke logging, screen recording and spyware aren’t the way for managers to get the information they need to help people improve. **

Here are the challenges employers will face as they look into data driven performance improvement.

1.) Getting meaningful data, and only meaningful data. Employers need to be able to capture and organize information in a way that can actually lead to insights. This is very different from capturing vast amounts of irrelevant data. Work data is generally unstructured, and fragmented across many systems. Pulling the right data into a single repository is a real challenge.

2.) Getting insight from data. What are the real cause-and-effect levers that cause some people to be so much more productive than others? How do you weed out spurious correlations? Many big data initiatives fail because value can’t be found in the data. Fortunately, with performance data, Enkata has found that many opportunities for improvement are obvious once the data is studied in the right way.

3.) Driving change from insight. Employers need to find ways to actually get employees to take action based on the insights. Otherwise, the data is useless. If the company can’t get the results, than the data is just one more analytics dashboard doing no good for anyone.

The idea of the quantified enterprise strikes some people as a little odd or “big brother.” At least with the quantified self, people can keep their data to themselves. What we’ve found is that, if approached the right way, these concerns can be addressed in a way that makes everyone comfortable with the program.[/quote]

To me these notions (bolded) are too simply put to really understand what’s going on here with either a) the Enkata system and b) what it means to be useful and improve “work” with data.

I think Whitney is on to something here by placing workplace tracking into another category than Quantified Self. Think about the tag line we use for QS, “self knowledge through numbers.” Or something Gary and I have tossed around lately, “personal meaning from personal data.” When we get into the idea and implementation of data gathering, tracking, and insight development at the workplace level we start to fuzz the meaning of “personal” and “self”.

That is not to say that should be considered as an affront to QS and the values we’ve started to explore and produce as a community. I think that in certain cases we can explore self-hood as a community of individuals. We’ve started to see rumblings of this with Esther Dyson’s ideas around the Quantified Community. One of the things to think of here, and of great importance when thinking of the power dynamics of work, is the difference between “data for us” versus “data for me about you.” I think that in many cases those advocating for applying tracking in workplace (and you could say that this is not new concept) are moving rapidly into the “date for me [work] about you [worker]” than encouraging the collection and exploration of self-determined tracking and the resulting data and insights.

Some more reading to spark conversation:
[*]Tesco uses armbands to track workers

Just ran across an interesting example that could spark more discussion on using tracking at/for work:

[quote]At Buffer, not only does everyone get a wristband, the tracked data is shared among the team. Rather than coming off as intrusive or ‘Big Brother,’ the practice ends up sparking conversations about the connection between personal energy levels and productivity at work – and that can be enlightening in itself.

“Work smarter, not harder” is one of Buffer’s mantras, and they use the Jawbone to get those critical insights on how, for example, the amount of sleep they got affects how much work they got done.[/quote]



* I apologize for this comment. I was a bit confused by the nature of the post, but in good faith the author has commented below.

Arguably from the day that the punch clock was invented, employers have been tracking their employees. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing as long as it is in the context of a well defined contract between employers and their workforce.

Quantified Workplace seems to be largely about extracting more effort from employees at no ‘extra cost’. It’s a false economy because of course there will be a cost of pushing employees harder.

But just as many companies are finding productivity & profiitablity improvements from ‘going green’, I think many companies do understand that they’re better off with happy employees. In which, this kind of tracking could be used to help people ‘work smarter’.

Sadly, the evidence so far from call-centre software and the supermarkets use of this tech doesn’t support that. So all the more reason for employees to organise in unions, etc.

I’m glad to see my article got some uptake, as I think this is a really interesting topic. (Also, I hope this response doesn’t come across as an advertorial.)

Here are few thoughts on this. One is that people are right to note that this has been happening to employees forever. Managers have always been watching their workers.

The difference is that the quantity and granularity of data is so much better (or worse) depending on your view of it. There are companies that record every phone call, every key stroke and every computer screen. The Tesco story is a great example of what I would view as potential overreach by the management. Having the boss breathe down your neck sets up a hostile relationship.

I think it’s made worse by the blurring of work and personal life. In the old days, there was a bright line separating the two. Now, your computer is your work tool, your social life, your bank, etc. We’re in a gray zone when it comes to checking Facebook at the office. What if you’re on break?

Companies will be dramatically increasing the electronic monitoring of their employees. I do think there is a right way and a wrong way. The most important thing is that companies should only gather information specifically related to the work being done. Managers should never be in a position to see personal information, like the contents of emails or screen captures of websites visited. Managers should be able to see what the person did for their job.

The right schema shouldn’t be big brother, but a personal trainer. Help people understand how their work habits and behaviors may cause problems.

Here are a few examples of data that we gather, and then use to help employees.

One very common problem is people dropping what they’re working on every time they get an email or instant message. Some people switch between tasks two hundred times or more in the course of a day. This behavior kills work quality and productivity. Imagine trying to do any complex, mindful task when you are doing it in two minute increments, broken up by totally random things. This is a reasonable thing for managers to coach employees on.

Another common problem (especially with remote workers) is that they don’t know if they’re doing something the slow, inefficient way. It’s hard for people to learn from others if they can’t even see them. Being able to see when people are struggling with a specific task, and then coach them on that is a good thing. (The other model is to fire people who are too slow, rather than help them. I don’t like this approach, though some do.)

Finally, sometimes you need more than a personal trainer. We find some number of employees who are really scamming the system. They’ve figured out how to game the metrics they’re being measured on, and are behaving very badly. If they have a production target, they jam out low quality work to hit the target, and then take the rest of the day off. This is a small, but real problem.

As I said, this has always been going on, and employers will continue to refine their processes for quantifying their workers. I’m hopeful that it can be done in a way that will keep managers and employees focused on the same, shared objectives.

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Thank you for taking the time to reply here. I apologize for the advertorial comment. It was snarky and misguided. It has been edited to reflect this.

You and Caspar are right. This has been going on forever, but to stand behind the argument that it’s always been done, therefore it is okay if we just tweak it might be a wrong one. I like your thoughts around a personal trainer for workplace performance. That implies that a common goal is worked on together (client + trainer) as is the case in most good fitness settings. But, I think that very often in the case of workplace tracking and quantification the goals of the workplace and the worker are not aligned.

I remember speaking with someone at an unconference a few years back about something like this. I had given a presentation on games and data. He worked in a software development company and wanted my advice on creating a game the ranked people in the company based on bugs in their code and their efficiency. On the surface, this seems like a fun little way to encourage good work and reduce errors. But, in reality the data that feeds into the system might not be what employees (those who create value) would like to focus on to improve their work. This, like many other things we see still comes from a paternalistic perspective - Father knows best - of placing demands on employees rather than asking them what is important and what would improve their work.

Let’s keep this going. I’m really digging this conversation!

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Hi everyone -

Ernesto, I think “personal meaning from personal data” is really great—and in its symmetry (“personal meaning” / “personal data”), it gets at something that I think is still being glossed over here, which is just how large the difference in power is between an employer and his or her employees.

Workplace tracking is not like a client+trainer relationship because, in the end, the trainer serves at the pleasure of the client. The trainer may help the client see how his or her behaviors or habits are “causing problems,” and even issue commands (or suggestions) about how the client should change, but in the end, if the client doesn’t agree with the trainer’s assessment, or with the trainer’s definition of a “problem,” or with the changes the trainer wants to make, or just with how the trainer has been treating him or her, the client can terminate the relationship. Of course, the trainer can also terminate the relationship, but it’s the trainer whose livelihood depends on it; regardless of who terminates the trainer-client relationship, it’s the trainer who suffers a material loss. This gives the client the greater share of power and control.

Workplace tracking, on the other hand, is like what would happen if the trainer was paying the client to work out (and working out was the client’s sole occupation). Either party can still sever the relationship, but now the price of severance falls on the client instead of on the trainer—which means the trainer is no longer incentivized to care whether the client shares his or her definition of what “the problem” is or of how it should be corrected. In the trainer-client relationship, the financial power of the client serves to balance the authoritative power of the trainer; in workplace tracking this balance is lost, and the end result does look a lot like (potentially authoritarian) paternalism. It would be super-great if the goals of workplace and worker were aligned (whether in tracking or any other matter of equal gravitas), but Ernesto’s right: very often, this isn’t the case.

I think it’s important to point out as well that, while employers have probably been tracking employees pretty much since the advent of the term “employee” itself, that doesn’t mean that workplace tracking is automatically inevitable, or that it need necessarily proceed in any particular given way, or that workers should automatically accept it. To throw out just one example, what if workers were provided with a range of self-tracking tools to use at their own discretion, but their employer had no way to access the workers’ data or even to know who was using which tools (or no tools at all)? This, to me, would be more like true self-tracking, rather than tracking-by-other-in-superior-position-of-power (which i’ll readily admit is not a catchy term).

[As an aside, for what it’s worth: Dan, you state that “in the old days, there was a bright line separating [work and personal life]”—but in the even older days (before industrialization), there was no such divide because most people both lived and worked at home. The conceptual creation of the “work/personal life” divide actually marked more time spent under an authority figure’s watchful eye, not less; along those lines, it’s not the breakdown of that boundary that’s leading to further attempts by employers to monitor their employees, but the very imbalance of power between the employer and the employees itself.]

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Hi Whitney,

I agree with some of your points. Describing workplace tracking as “if the trainer was paying the client to work out (and working out was the client’s sole occupation)” is pretty much spot on as to what it means to have a job. If you’ve ever waited in line while the checkout clerk took a personal call, you’d have to agree that when someone is being paid to do a job, they should do the job.

However, I believe the price of severance falls at least as much on the employer as the employee.

Just from the “employee as a cog in the machine” point of view, firing, hiring and training is an incredibly expensive proposition. The underperformance of an employee in advance of firing is also very costly. Small companies and start-ups can fail because of one or two bad employees.

But employees aren’t cogs in the machine. They’re people. In many cases, they’re friends. I’ve had to fire people for performance, and it is, without a doubt, the worst part of being a manager. I’ve always worked hard to understand why the person was underperforming with the hopes that I could help them get off the watch list. When I have been able to help people turn it around, I’m as happy as they are.

But even if you take the view that managers are heartless beasts who can’t wait to fire slackers, a manager with an underperforming team is also on the watch list. Managers are evaluated on having stable, productive teams. Turnover is as bad as tolerating underperformers. A manager can only blame his employees for their performance for so long.

The truth is that for many things in life, measurement and tracking is the key to improvement. (I think on this forum, that’s probably a pretty noncontroversial statement.) So the question is, should employers be interested in measurement and tracking of employees to get improvement.

The answer is yes. Because of that, they’ll do it. You’re right that employees don’t need to accept this. But in the past, and across industries, when the workforce sets itself against performance improvement, the employees lose in the end. Whether it’s the Detroit auto workers, the airline unions with their work rules, or even countries like France, limiting productivity is an incredible job killer.

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