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July 28, 2011

“Digital Dog Tags” Track Workers

By Joe Maglitta

It makes obvious sense: Gathering and analyzing key data produces smarter decisions. Better than guesswork, more accurate than intuition. That’s the simple but powerful driver behind IBM Business Analytics and Optimization (BAO) and competing offerings.

But what if the data gathered is not about impersonal machine transactions or numbers, but about you? How much do you talk or email during the work day? To who? In which departments? How often do you walk around? How long did you take for break?

Research labs and start-ups are hard at work doing developing such products. Using technology developed by MIT’s Media Lab, Sociometric Solutions, of Watertown, Mass., has built a “sociometric badge” to track and analyze a wide range of worker behaviors with an eye toward improving performance.

It works like this: Workers wear a small white box, roughly the size of a mobile phone, hanging from a lanyard. Inside, a microphone captures speech, an accelerometer tracks movement, and an infrared sensor registers encounters with other device wearers. Workers are told they can “voluntarily” wear the digital dog tags (90 percent reportedly do) to help analysts improve ways people in your company interact.

Such data, explains Sociometric CEO Ben Waber, is invaluable for planning new initiatives, products, policies, practices – even in mergers and acquisitions.

“When a consultant comes into a company, they look at org charts and do interviews,” Waber, a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, told the Boston Globe. “But our approach is to use these sensors to see how people really interact, over a period of a month or two.”

Makers say the data give new insight into, among other things, who spreads information within a company, and who is expert on a given topic. It also shows management which departments aren’t communicating – a sign of dangerous siloing or potential problems.

While they may sound creepy and Orwellian, digital dog tags are drawing interest. Sociometrics says it uses the smart badges on its own consulting assignments; it also sells the devices to academic researchers for $500 each. A 2009 trial at a Bank of America call center in Rhode Island found badged workers interacted more with colleagues, felt less stress, handled calls more quickly, and had customer approval ratings equal to non-wearers.

It’s not too early for you and your organization to start thinking about the Pandora’s Box of legal, union, operational, privacy, and employee satisfaction issues raised by these innocuous looking trackers.

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