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The Next Big Thing in Big Data: People Analytics

The Next Big Thing in Big Data: People Analytics

Photograph by Jen Fong/Gallery Stock

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.

Waber is the author of People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work (FT Press, May 2013). He is president and chief executive officer of Sociometric Solutions, a management consulting firm that specializes in social sensing technology, and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab. Follow him on Twitter: @bwaber

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