Many of us are living through workplace revolution. Technology is marching through, and in so doing is shifting the culture in many workplaces. The change is big.
Data was once considered boring, and the people who worked deep within it were commonly perceived to be socially clumsy or maybe even suffering from some form of social anxiety.
That worm has certainly turned. People now perceive data as like gold. It has taken on a special value in the world of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. People who work the deepest with data are now considered a form of genius, super intelligent, and perhaps even socially revered.
Data has become sexy. Organisations now go out of their way to collect data and analyse patterns within it. The most valuable data is that which can be used to predict human behaviour.
It's not new for people to be able to analyse our patterns and then try to manipulate our behaviour. Now though, data collection for the use of manipulating our behaviour is being done on an industrial scale. Some employers are even monitoring employees both covertly and openly to find the data that they can use to manipulate their levels of motivation, or their levels of compliance. Often this is done as an HR initiative.
We weep. This is just another iteration of a command and control approach to managing people. This time however, it comes with a more complex moral hazard.
We have heard of one HR technology that collects employee information and then makes it available to providers such as banks, insurers, and health funds. Employers receive kickbacks and incentives when employees purchase through the software partner program.
Of course there is the issue of privacy. Just because you sign an employment contract, does that give an employer the right to use personal data? It can seem such minor things such as your concentration levels at certain times, or your writing style and preference for certain language, or your preference for using certain applications more frequently than others. All of these can become part of your "data footprint" at work, that can be used to manipulate your behaviour or motivation.
In many of the technologies, motivation and engagement are used interchangeably. They are different. Short term motivation does not ensure deep and lasting engagement. Similarly, a deeply engaged person can suffer from lapses of motivation from time to time.
There is a deeper concern about using technology to try and drive engagement. Our concern is the quality of our interactions at work. Artificial intelligence is just that - artificial. We know that humans are not always rational and logical. Humans are often at their best when they are irrationally determined and illogically committed to their work. Our sporting heroes so often show us this.
The highest quality interactions we have as people are not based on data, they are based on emotion. Our deepest connections are with other people, based on recognition of shared humanity.
The best technology for engaging with humans, is another human; especially another who is willing to show their concern for our well-being, give their protection in difficult times, and commit their energy to building something meaningful and worthwhile for the benefit of others.
The best leaders have a reason to engage and are willing to have an ongoing conversation with their people about motivation and the barriers to attaining it. They value the interaction. They value the person with whom they are interacting.
Data has a place in every workplace, but the manipulation of people to exploit them is not that place. People are far too valuable, and the skill of leadership is far too important.
Employee engagement is actually about the quality of the conversations, the strength of the relationships, and the degree of trust that is established in the workplace. If data contributes to this, then it should be embraced. If not, then it is just disrupting, and ultimately undervaluing the value of human contribution.
Weak managers will rely on data, but it will never generate sustained commitment, inspire contribution, or build resilience and perseverance.
H Agents write about the joys and challenges of entrepreneurship and managing people.