Via Financial Times

The writer is author of ‘Wilful Blindness’

Barclays’ staff reacted so badly to its installation of monitoring technology, which tracked how long they stayed at their desks and used specific software applications, that the bank pulled the plug within two weeks.

But the original decision to use Sapience Analytics software that admonished employees to “avoid breaks” was based on two highly questionable assumptions. The first was that someone, at Barclays or Sapience, could define precisely what excellence required. The second was that this would somehow motivate high performance.

Rigid targets have already thrown up shocking scandals at the UK’s National Health Service and many other organisations, including the US bank Wells Fargo, which last week agreed to pay $3bn in penalties for a fake accounts scandal. As part of its “Going for Gr-eight” strategy, the salesforce was instructed to sell at least eight products to each customer. The goal was impossible but staff tried to do what they were told. When they couldn’t do it the right way, they did it the wrong way: signing up customers for products without telling them. People knew it was wrong but did what they were told. Blind obedience might look like efficiency but should haunt every manager.

So-called scientific management depends on precise definitions of work, which assume perfect knowledge of what tomorrow demands. It works for processes that repeat themselves predictably and perfectly. This is an age of uncertainty, where products such as plastic straws go from staple to reject in a week and where sales can vanish overnight because of a poor Amazon review.

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Anyone who believes they have that kind of granular foresight is out of touch. Customers aren’t predictable — except in their fury when call centres try to constrain their communications to arbitrary time limits.

The whole premise of organisational life is that groups of people working together can see more and make better choices than any individual mind or mindset. But that requires that the people within those groups think for themselves. Stripping line managers of judgment has ramifications: it depletes the skills for which they were hired.

Surveillance makes people afraid. Not only does it frighten employees away from articulating concerns, it also deters them from articulating opportunities. I know senior hotel executives who saw early on that Airbnb’s short-stay offering really did constitute a competitive threat but were afraid to alert their bosses early on. And who hasn’t wondered why Google waited seven years after Facebook launched in 2004 to create its own — now discontinued — social media offering? Academic research shows two main causes of organisational silence: fear and futility. Surveillance exacerbates both. Moreover, the development of a single data-driven model of excellence enforces conformity at a time when many companies have made diversity a strategic goal for the very good reason that it produces better insight.

Silence, obedience and conformity should be any manager’s worst nightmare. Yet that is what Sapience’s surveillance technology is likely to promote. Its focus on time spent using software gives the impression that chatting to colleagues is necessarily a waste of time. But a neat experiment by MIT professor Alex Pentland shows that is faulty.

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One team was given a shared coffee break, while the other, efficiently, staggered theirs so work was uninterrupted. The social team’s job satisfaction went up and it was $10m more profitable. What’s happening in that wasted time? People were sharing information, problem-solving, motivating and helping one another. Helpfulness, in many industries including banking, turns out to be a defining characteristic of outstanding organisations. And information flowing through an organisation boosts the chance of genuine creativity. Who hasn’t had the experience of discovering the answer to a question when talking tennis or travel to a colleague? The human mind often sees solutions when looking away from the problem — but that requires the freedom to do so.

Sapience describes its tool as “outsourcing governance” and it threatens to do exactly that — outsourcing accountability, but to whom? Or what? Bosses always want their employees to take responsibility for their work. But it’s irrational to expect anyone to take responsibility for work, or ways of working, that they had no part in setting up. Obeying the strictures of surveillance software takes away agency from the surveilled; that’s what it’s for.

Treating people like robots incurs the very real risk that they will behave like robots. And if the business is burning? Don’t expect them to hit the fire alarm.