Tuesday, 7 October 2014

What we need is a ChangeBit

I finished reading Dave Eggers' novel The Circle the other day (aside: it's not bad, although nowhere near as close to the bone as some observers would have you believe). I was reminded of one of the central ideas to the novel in a chat with a colleague and that sparked a thought: if we can measure (and gameify) our fitness digitally in real time, could we do the same with our work? Or, in less management consulting language - is there a Fitbit for workers?

In The Circle, employees of the eponymous firm are ranked on their participation in a range of internal and external communications. Their influence in the firm and the digital world is measured in real time as a proxy for their success in the social media firm.

In the book, the score is a fairly simple numerical rank made up of a few key underlying metrics ('smiles', referred sales...). The key part that I like about the PartiRank idea though is that the employee takes personal control of their score. Most of the Big Data internal effectiveness metrics concepts I've seen are the opposite - the employer has a central analysis team that monitors everyone and picks up transients. So if it works for fitness (if it does work... I'm skeptical that Fitbit and it's equivalents actually have lasting impact on most of their users), then perhaps it can work in simplifying the bewildering change from a process to an outcome-based business.

Now the sticky subject of what would go into the metrics. It has to be easy enough that the user can understand how to improve. In starting to think about it I also realised that there's quite a lot you can do with the basic communications tools in the office, before you even get to more bespoke or task-specific applications. Here's some ideas:

  1. Path length of emails after they've been sent (by which I mean how many emails are sent before the thread terminates, which is a loose proxy for solving problems)
  2. Average number of people copied on emails... a tricky one, because although it's good to be participative, large numbers of people infers that decisions are being excessively democratised and thus nothing will be done
  3. Diary structure, I think that there will be patterns to people's schedules that hint at how productive they are; for example, an overly fragmented diary suggests that there's no working time and possibly too much delegation... in any case there may be productive patterns for specific roles
  4. Proportion of internal vs external communications, hints at partnering and ecosystem behaviour
  5. Positively-rated posts on internal social networking... this is where it gets dangerous as the potential for gaming the system is high!
I also wonder whether the 'time in motion' analysis side of fitness tracking might also be interesting as it infers time on your feet, which might be collaboration time. Or it might not. Any system like this has to be simple to use, which means that it tends to be only directionally helpful. 

In thinking about it I did notice that we employees have very little sight of our data within companies. It's spread all around different pockets and tends to be hidden in tabs of an SAP system or just not available at all. I'd love to understand more about my own usage of technology and how it loads the organisation. The effects of hierarchies and spans of control are difficult to see from a single point of view and feedback systems aren't very useful or real time...

...the latter is another huge weakness of employee assessment systems. They typically happen on a six monthly or annual basis and are based on largely qualitatively measures. Over the years I've become increasingly frustrated by subjective conversations about potentially objective matters around performance during our review process. I don't think it's a bad system, either. Many businesses seem to do without any evidence of employee performance at all. So maybe we need a ChangeBit.

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