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Big Data; Big Trouble

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 11:24 a.m. CST

Really, I don’t know what the fuss is all about. So the government is monitoring our phone calls. So the Internet knows that I use Axe cologne and never miss an episode of “Kourtney and Kim Take Miami.” We live in a world of Big Data, and if you ask me, it’s no big deal.

Except, of course, when the big collector of big data is the big boss.

If you think your company is not tracking your every move, not counting your every keystroke, not recording every purchase you make from the break-room candy machine, you’re nuttier than the Abba-Zaba bar you purchased last Thursday at 3:34 p.m. and didn’t share with anyone in HR.

It was Rachel Emma Silverman who blew the whistle on all the corporate eavesdropping. A columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Silverman’s recent newsflash, “Tracking Sensors Invade the Workplace,” provides a clarion call to every employee who values what’s left of his privacy.

And that should be you. Even if you are doing nothing wrong, even if you are doing nothing at all, there’s no reason to let Big Brother, or Big Manager, know it.

Of course, management doesn’t justify this corporate snoopathon by admitting it wants this information on their employees’ lives, just to make sure the company is doing all it can to make those lives miserable.

Instead, the rationale used by upper managers for low-down deeds is a preternatural urge to make the workplace a better place for everyone.

One employer with this eleemosynary urge is Bank of America. The big bank is so concerned about the welfare of its employees that it “asked about 90 workers to wear badges for a few weeks with tiny sensors to record their movements and the tone of their conversations.”

I suppose the employees should be grateful that the bank asked. They could have just released a canister of sleeping gas and implanted the sensors in the frontal lobes of the unconscious employees.

According to Silverman, “the data showed that the most productive workers belonged to close-knit teams and spoke frequently with their colleagues.” That is definitely actionable data.

Armed with this information the bank could create a much closer-knit team by firing the less productive workers and replacing them with cheaper, chattier folks.

If the thought of management tracking your every move and mood strikes you as invasive and pretty darn creepy, you can rest assure that management swears it only wants big data, not the kind of teeny-weeny data that could show who is working hard and who is hardly working.

This kind of Big Brother posture might be immoral, but it is not illegal. According to Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, “it’s not illegal to track your own employees inside your own building.”

Outside of the voyeuristic joy that management can take in knowing when its employees are going great guns or going to the bathroom, some firms do report making productive changes based on the big data.

For example, one tech company described in Silverman’s article utilized data analysis to learn that “the size of a lunch table matters. Workers who ate at 12-person tables were more productive and collaborative than those who dined at tables with four seats.”

Once again, big data can produce big changes. If more interaction results in higher productivity, how much better would it be if management did away with lunchroom tables altogether.

Just herd the employees into a closet and pelt them with pot roasts. Then, lock the door.

I guarantee you’ll have interaction galore, and, best of all, the survivors will have proven themselves well worthy of promotion to supervisory positions.

Right now, the state of snooping technology forces firms that want to know everything about everyone to issue special “smart badges,” but on the horizon, workplace experts see a broader trend.

“As companies rethink their offices, many are looking into ‘smart buildings,’ wired with technologies that show workers’ locations in real time and suggest meetings with colleagues nearby.”

Putting a simple cranial implant in the brains of the workers could facilitate those “suggestions,” with a suggestive jolt of 10,000 volts for any employee who would rather not collaborate.

If these improvements in your workplace do not agree with you, I’d suggest you let your managers know.

You can write a memo, or send an email or just whisper your opinion into your desk lamp. Someone will be listening; you can be sure.

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