Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Numerati

Data Mining is continuously being considered, applied and adopted in new areas. The Numerati by Stephen Baker has a very interesting chapter called, "The Worker."

At IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, a team of data miners, statisticians and anthropologists is building mathematical models of their colleagues (50,000 of IBM's tech consultants) to improve productivity and automate management. The idea is to pile up inventories of all of their skills and then to calculate mathematically (the job fit, for example), how best to deploy them.

Quoting the author, "IBM, for example, will also be able to place workers and their skills into the same type of analytic software that they use for financial projections. This way, they will project skills that will be needed (or in surplus) in coming years. This eventually could result in something like futures markets for skills and workers."

The data sources used for the modeling include resumes, project records, online calendars, cell phone & handheld computer usage, call records and emails, etc.

The article also mentions an interesting example of how an IBM manager can select and assign a team of five to set up a call center in Manila.

The criticism or shall we say the skepticism is directed at this idea that the complexity of highly intelligent knowledge workers can be translated into equations and algorithms. Comments left by readers include concerns about freedom, privacy, harassment by the management, discrimination, etc.

But how is this different from the racial profiling techniques used by the United States government after 9/11? Or, insurance agencies charging different premiums to persons based on their demographic profiles?

My guess is that, in the near future a few companies are going to adopt what IBM is currently doing, in some form or the other. According to IBM - the workforce has become too big, the world too vast and complicated for managers to get a grip on their workers the old-fashioned way.

And then one day, will your manager come up to you and say that you’ve been assigned a different role because your "job fit" with the work you are currently doing is only 72%? Will you get promoted in your team because you scored 1% higher than your colleague?

Or will an unmentioned and unwritten class system based on an employee’s score define the workplace of tomorrow?

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