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Fed up with feedback

Fed up with feedback

We-the-people seem to get the Big Brother ramifications of technologies that permit the instantaneous collection and analysis of reams of data. But there's another side to this stuff that gets less attention but is just as insidious.

Americans have long been suspicious of the idea of a national ID card, particularly one linked to a centralized database kept by the federal government. Even after Sept. 11, a majority of Americans (according to various polls) oppose Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison's concept of a national ID card embedded with biometrics. We-the-people seem to get the Big Brother ramifications of technologies that permit the instantaneous collection and analysis of reams of data. But there's another side to this stuff that gets less attention but is just as insidious.

Take, for example, a new software release that purports to collect and collate data on an employee's performance and deliver it to that person on a "continuous and timely" basis. This software, called individual performance improvement (IPI), has been developed by the folks at Richmond Hill, Ontario-based Changepoint Corp.

According to a Changepoint press release, IPI software takes feedback from the employee's peers or customers and combines it with existing data from the RoboBoss system for a "holistic picture." What's so bad about that, you ask? After all, an increasing number of employers collect feedback from people at all levels of an organization for what is known as a 360-degree review of an employee's performance. This type of evaluation is widely considered state of the art. But the raw data for these evaluations are not stored in some centralized database as part of the employee's permanent record.

IPI would change all that. It would provide a permanent audit trail of all kinds of feedback, some of which you and I might view as prejudiced or trivial. The danger of such a permanent record is its power to pigeonhole people--freeze them in a snapshot of time that could rob them of any potential for future change. Keep in mind that what is now stored in an employee's permanent file is the final review, carefully crafted by a (one hopes sensitive) manager who has pulled together the highlights of that person's performance. IPI software would automatically add to that all the off-the-cuff commentary that anybody has ever made. People are already afraid to discuss performance (because of fears about legal liability, some employers won't even give you a job reference once you've left their employ). So you can imagine how much more timid this will make corporate employees. Or dare I say, robotic?

Save the Children

This kind of permanent audit trail could pose even greater harm in other arenas. Consider a similar software app that is now being marketed as a student assessment tool for K-12. Created by Data Friendly, this software can analyze thousands of student records to help teachers and administrators better assess factors affecting student performance. For instance, such aggregate data might help a teacher understand why the dropout rate in her eighth-grade class is so high, according to Ronald Daniels, the CEO of Data Friendly in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. That kind of tool could indeed be valuable in analyzing aggregate trends in student performance. The slippery slope comes in its capacity to collect and analyze an individual student's information (including what she eats for lunch and what she's told her guidance counselor about problems at home) in order to assess her progress and identify her strengths and weaknesses. Too many public school students are already stereotyped as slow learners or problem children based on irresponsible teacher analyses. One can imagine the potential for injury, not to mention massive invasions of privacy, if software like this were ever to be used on a large-scale basis in our school systems to track individual students.

In my son's school, for example, there is a child with behavioral problems. His teacher and principal, along with a few parents, know that his father is in prison and his mother is a drunk. School officials are sensitive to this boy's needs, which seem all the more glaring because he lives in an affluent suburb. But what would happen if all this information were automatically stored as part of his permanent record? Might a college recruiter wonder about the wisdom of recommending a student with so dysfunctional a family history?

So far, Data Friendly has not made major inroads into the public school system. And that's because, as Daniels himself acknowledges, many educators are leery of the software.

Why This Won't Work

One can only hope that corporate HR departments turn out to be similarly discriminating. Alas, that may be overly optimistic. Software that constantly monitors employee performance would seem to be just the kind of tool that HR departments love. (No companies are using IPI yet, but a Changepoint spokeswoman says many customers have expressed interest.)

What's most pernicious (to me at least) about this software is that it "provides employees with continuous and timely feedback on all areas of their performance," according to Changepoint. "All areas" takes in a lot of ground, doesn't it? Imagine that you're sitting at your computer, writing up a report, and flashing on your screen is the latest feedback from your peers: "Bass, you were a little too grumpy at today's project meeting."

I can't imagine a feature more destined to dampen productivity and ruin morale. But don't take my word for it. Several consultants who specialize in employee performance believe this kind of software might be counterproductive. "It's the word constant I have trouble with," says Fred Reichheld, a Bain fellow and author of Loyalty Rules. "Any feedback that goes beyond monthly wouldn't be valuable. At that point, you're running a popularity contest and making employees constantly worried about messing up their performance."

Indeed, software that is perceived by employees as being a control and audit mechanism often produces an oppositional effect, says Alan Wolfson, senior consultant at Hay Insight, a division of Philadelphia-based Hay Group. "Employees end up seeing this kind of system as a nuisance rather than a performance aid, and they stop using it," he says. And then you've spent all that money for, essentially, bubkis.

There is, of course, value to some kind of automated system that provides timely feedback to managers, particularly those who are monitoring an offsite project being performed, for instance, on a consulting basis. Say, for example, you're a manager at Accenture and you have assigned someone to work on a client's database. A week later, you might send this automated survey to the client to see how things are going. And you get back data that indicates the employee is absolutely the wrong person to do this particular job. "This would allow the manager to clear up the situation so it doesn't fester and become a problem down the line," explains Kazim Isfahani, principal analyst for the Robert Frances Group in Westport, Conn., and a proponent of the new ISI software.

That's perfectly true. But why couldn't the manager just pick up the phone or send an e-mail to the client to ask how the job was going? It strikes me that the latter would not only be more client-friendly, it would be a whole lot cheaper too.

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