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People Analytics... the next Big thing in Big data (or is it a really old thing?)

frederick winslow taylor

When we use data to uncover the workplace behaviors that make people effective, happy, creative, experts, leaders, followers, early adopters, and so on, we are using “people analytics.”

Thousands of years ago, this data came from our observations. By watching others react to changing conditions, people were able to make educated guesses about what makes them effective and happy. Later, we augmented our senses using surveys and interviews, establishing new metrics that were more quantitative, but this did not herald any radical changes in the way people run companies.

Today, people analytics is poised for a revolution, and the catalyst is the explosion of hard data about our behavior at work. This data comes from a wide variety of sources: E-mail records, Web browsing behavior, instant messaging, and all the other digital systems we use give us information about how people work. Who communicates with whom? How is IT tool usage related to productivity? Are there work styles that aren’t well-supported by current technology? Although this data can provide amazing insights, it’s only the virtual part of the story.

Data on the physical world is expanding at a breakneck pace, thanks to the rapid development of wearable sensing technology. These sensors, from company ID badges to cell phones to environmental sensors, provide reams of fine-grained data on interaction patterns, motion, and location, among other things. Because most communication and collaboration happens face to face, the data are critical for people analytics to take that next leap forward and become a transformative organizational tool. By combining precise data from both real and virtual worlds, we can understand behavior at a previously unimaginable scale.

This information can be a threat to personal privacy, so it’s important to use data-gathering technology on an opt-in basis with the understanding that participants will be anonymous and no individual data will be disseminated. This approach is the right thing to do, and the only way this technology will gain broad acceptance.

Some companies are using this approach to boost productivity. Bank of America(BAC) analyzed their call center operation to change how their employees took breaks, reducing turnover and increasing performance dramatically. Cubist Pharmaceuticals (CBST) found that it had too many coffee machines. By introducing centralized coffee areas it was able to increase serendipitous interactions and sales.

These are just a few examples, but they demonstrate how even slight changes in behavior can make people happier, healthier, and more productive. People analytics transforms our understanding of socialization in the workplace, the impact of office layout, and even concepts as “soft” as creativity.

In the future, we will use this knowledge to create new ways of organizing people that radically improve the way we work. Office layouts that respond to social context and real-time feedback on communication patterns and interaction styles are new levers enabled by people analytics that no one could have imagined.

Here's the really old thing from 1911:

Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911)


PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT, in his address to the Governors at the White House, prophetically remarked that “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency.”

The whole country at once recognized the importance of conserving our material resources and a large movement has been started which will be effective in accomplishing this object. As yet, however, we have but vaguely appreciated the importance of “the larger question of increasing our national efficiency.”

We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight. But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed; or inefficient, and which Mr. Roosevelt refers to as a lack of “national efficiency,” are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated.

We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. And for this reason, even though our daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of material things, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little.

As yet there has been no public agitation for “greater national efficiency,” no meetings have been called to consider how this is to be brought about. And still there are signs that the need for greater efficiency is widely felt.

The search for better, for more competent men, from the presidents of our great companies down to our household servants, was never more vigorous than it is now. And more than ever before is the demand for competent men in excess of the supply.

What we are all looking for, however, is the readymade, competent man; the man whom some one else has trained. It is only when we fully realize that our duty, as well as our opportunity, lies in systematically cooperating to train and to make this competent man, instead of in hunting for a man whom some one else has trained, that we shall be on the road to national efficiency.

In the past the prevailing idea has been well expressed in the saying that “Captains of industry are born, not made”; and the theory has been that if one could get the right man, methods could be safely left to him. In the future it will be appreciated that our leaders must be trained right as well as born right, and that no great man can (with the old system of personal management) hope to compete with a number of ordinary men who have been properly organized so as efficiently to cooperate.

In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first. This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systematic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before.

This paper has been written:

First. To point out, through a series of simple illustrations, the great loss which the whole country is suffering through inefficiency in almost all of our daily acts.

Second. To try to convince the reader that the remedy for this inefficiency lies in systematic management, rather than in searching for some unusual or extraordinary man.

Third. To prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules, and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all kinds of human activities, from our simplest individual acts to the work of our great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And, briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding.

This paper was originally prepared for presentation to The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The illustrations chosen are such as, it is believed, will especially appeal to engineers and to managers of industrial and manufacturing establishments, and also quite as much to all of the men who are working in these establishments. It is hoped, however, that it will be clear to other readers that the same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our governmental departments.

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