Employees Will be Part of the Matrix

Paul Hebert Career Paths, Driving Productivity, HR Technology, Innovation, Paul Hebert, Performance

MatixsmallOne of the most promising laboratories for the Numerati is the workplace, where every keystroke, click, and e-mail can be studied.”

One would think that the above quote is from a recently found rough draft of the Orwell book 1984, but it is part of the introduction to an article about a new book by Stephen Baker called “The Numerati.”  Based on a Business Week cover story from 2006 called “Math Will Rock Your World”, author Stephen Baker highlights the work being done to peer into the mountains of personal data available – from credit card purchases to web site history – in order to predict your behavior.  We’ve known for years that data drives the marketing of most products and services, so most of us would just yawn and go about our business.  But IBM is taking the idea of using data to a whole new level – one I think many of us would not be too happy with.  A quote from the chapter called “The Worker.”

“His assignment is to translate the complexity of highly intelligent knowledge workers into the same types of equations and algorithms that are used to fine-tune shipping or predict the life span and production of a mainframe computer. With time, he and his team hope to build detailed models for each worker, each one complete with a person’s quirks, daily commute, and allies, perhaps even enemies. These models might one day include whether the workers eat beef or pork, how seriously they take the Sabbath, whether a bee sting or a peanut sauce could lay them low. No doubt, some of them thrive even in the filthy air in Beijing or Mexico City, while others wheeze. If so, the models would eventually include this detail, among countless others. The idea is to build richly textured models that behave in their symbolic realm just like their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Then planners can manipulate them, looking for the most efficient combinations.

So, just as in the Matrix – we are increasingly becoming just bits and bytes – no longer people but data to be manipulated and combined to create the perfect machine for a specific task.  The data will drive the outcome.  The equation will create the result.

What this screams to me is that in the future, an individual will be relegated to the tasks they have performed in the past.  Growth, as an individual contributor will be stymied.  If I do a great job on, say, project management, the data will show this, and I’ll be assigned project management duties.  But what if I really, really want to be in the creative end of the work flow?  How will the computer know this?  How will I ever be able to realize my dream, if my future is the sum of my past rather than the combination of my past work and my future desires?

From a talent management standpoint, how will the computer be able to quantify that certain something we can see in people’s eyes when they are given a challenge that is new and different – that something that lets us know that this person will absolutely nail the assignment?  From a worker standpoint – why would I ever take a risk in a position if I know that it will be documented and held for all eternity in my permanent record?  And will the equations that drive the recommendations be open to the public?  If so, I can manipulate the output by focusing on those variables I know have more impact.  If it is a secret, then everyone will work to the lowest common denominator – unwilling to take a chance and do something “insanely great.”

For many things, predictability is a wonderful thing.  Knowing that a part will come down the assembly line in perfect condition at a specific point in time increases output and quality.  But in today’s business world, where innovation is the new mantra of success, predictability is the last thing we need.  Innovation isn’t predictable.  Neither is behavior.

My practice thrives on the fact that people are not predictable.  While historical data can be a predictor of future behavior – I can influence that behavior, change it, and create something that wasn’t predictable.  I’m a bit worried that the corporate world will see this as another way to reduce the risk of business and take to it like Paris Hilton in a red carpet factory.  Any one else a bit worried?