Companies like Microsoft offer change management tools like Workplace Analytics to help customers make better decisions around designing future processes, job roles and organizational structures. These tools rely on the analysis of email exchange and calendar metadata to understand how employees are communicating and with whom, and what meetings are taking place and for how long. Microsoft claims that with this data it is possible to identify patterns about engagement, which departments are under stress, and which collaborators are reaching across company boundaries the most. Such patterns can be helpful, for example, to predict the probabilities of retaining key individuals and develop retention strategies.
To ease privacy concerns, the names of individuals are removed, and the company relies on patterns and frequency of the interactions between departments and the correlation of this data with traditional indicators i.e. process effectiveness. Consultants using these tools in organizations benefit from having hard data on the day-to-day workflow and no longer relying on employee anecdotes or surveys that are filled with biases. Advocates of these tools mention that the paper-trail created helps to precisely identify what behaviors need to change to make a process work and to monitor the developments in real time.
The same type of technique is used to understand office layout design, for example. More than ever companies around the world are modernizing by turning to open office spaces and a variety of technologies that promotes collaboration among employees. The premise behind moving to an open space is simple: employees that are within close proximity are likely to interact with more frequency with each other than those how are located further apart. But often it isn’t effective: People don’t necessarily interact more, or they interact in unproductive ways. By using the email and calendar paper-trial of employees, researchers have been able to understand the employee’s collective behavior, how the physical layout influences interactions between them and whether the layout is effective or not.
In addition, the potential of using theses “bread-crumbs” is that managers could change the way they interact with employees. Having real time data on email traffic, for example, would provide real time insights on employee sentiment in the organization and even anticipate potential conflicts. Managers would not have to wait for formal triggers like feedback meetings, surveys or periodic reviews to respond. It is about being able to respond faster and more accurately, and understanding what changes are working in a more reliable and noninvasive way.
The application of email and calendar paper-trail is clearly benefiting decision making around people analytics. The technique is being used effectively for several applications, as discussed above. However, these “bread-crumbs” are defined only by what people writes in emails, chats, etc. I wonder how many of the most meaningful interactions I have in life are actually through these channels. My assumption is that the most meaningful interactions occur face-to-face and are not being captured and accounted with the current technique. To get better results, tools like Workplace Analytics and the AI algorithms used by academia for their research will need to include technologies that monitor face-to-face interactions across the workplace.
Michael L. Tushman , Anna Kahn , Mary Elizabeth Porray and Andy Binns. 6/28/2017. “Email and Calendar Data Are Helping Firms Understand How Employees Work”. Harvard Business Review.
Chantrelle Nielsen and Natalie McCullough. 5/17/2018. “How People Analytics Can Help You Change Process, Culture, and Strategy.” Harvard Business Review.
Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber. 12/11/2019. “The Truth About Open Offices.” Harvard Business Review.