Productivity at the Cost of Privacy: HR Weighs in on IoT


“The Internet of Things (IoT) is a computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and be able to identify themselves to other devices.” - Kouroupetroglou, 2014

IoT applications capture data from the object aggregating that information across a data network, and act on that information in order to improve business efficiency. So far as a society we’ve been able to gather data - from the simple to the complex. On the simple side, we are able to track movements, GPS, and interaction time with technology. On the complex side we are able to look at genetic makeup & monitor biological functions like heart rate and sleep time.

What do we do with this data? Of course we attempt to model it and find patterns in the data, but we can also sell it to the highest bidder. The animating force behind IoT is “That which you measure, you can grow.”

In a perfect world, employees consent is first taken into account before their privacy rights are infringed upon.

Ways IoT Can Help
In a study conducted by MIT scientist Sandy Pentland, call center workers were monitored on how they interacted with customers with badges affixed around their neck. More than 100 data were available, which gave insight into call center workers’ tone of voice, language use, and gesticulation. They found that bringing call-center workers together for lunch at the same time significantly improved productivity. Communication between workers rose 18 percent, stress dropped 19 percent, and call completion - a key metric of performance - increased 23 percent.

In a second example, an IoT-based system was used by UPS. The company installed sensors on trucks and truck drivers, measuring things like drive speed, direction, braking, health of mechanical components, idle time, and even driver seatbelt use. Analysts used this data to eliminate left turns, reduce wasteful idling, and arrange for vehicle maintenance only when it was needed. In one year alone Deloitte reported that “an IoT-based system helped UPS cut idling time by 15.4 million minutes and delivery routes by more than 1.7 million miles, saving nearly 200,000 gallons of fuel.”

IoT enabled building systems could provide real-time access to the location of employees. Electronic calendars could be integrated with office networks to automatically book meeting rooms, customize comfort parameters, and optimize occupancy factors.

State Farm Insurance offers a safe driver program for individuals that leave the State Farm app open while they drive, leaving the location on. Yes, they can track you, but you may also save $20 a month by letting them use that data. And if you’re a Millennial with the ‘location’ button permanently turned on on your phone, more power to you!

Your Employer is Watching
People analytics has its usefulness but it can also be abused.

Trackers can be used to track individual’s whereabouts and movements. Research from Mary Young in 2013 shows that, “almost 75 percent of employees believe their employer is capturing data about them without their knowledge.”

Understandably, people are wary and a little worried.

Certain collected metrics, like an individual's whereabouts, time spent in the bathroom, time spent idling, and time spent at the computer, are TMI, or too much information. Research suggests that manufacturers shipped 1 billion IoT devices in 2015, and analysts predict that the market will grow over 3,000 percent in four years - so this trend is likely to increase.

Who is responsible? The front-line personnel in operations that install the sensors and the data analysts on the back-end who choose what metrics to dedicate their time to. The same sensors that can be used to track helpful and innocuous data can equally be programmed to show sensitive data that breaches privacy.

How do we not breach too far into personnel data? By not opening Pandora’s box. As a data scientist, just because you can install a sensor to track how often your truck drivers use the bathroom doesn’t mean you should. (And if you track it for the sake of your own curiosity, that doesn’t mean your findings need to be published or sent up the chain of command to shrewd executives whose primary concern is shareholder value). Be judicious in your genius.

But It’s Not all Doom and Gloom
I didn’t write this article to warn about “Big Brother” or be preachy and highlight some moral lesson. The truth is that “If you can track one employee you can track a crowd. If you can track a crowd you can optimize routes.”

Optimized routes for nurses and doctors in hospitals can mean faster E.R. response time, saving potentially thousands of more people per year who would have otherwise had more complications from waiting too long.

Optimized routes for shippers can mean avoiding accidents and making the most of each trip. Trackers can monitor alertness on the job. Truck drivers, pilots, and ship captains can be scanned for fatigue while driving, and be alerted ahead of time, preventing accidents.

Bottom Line for HR Professionals
Bottom Line for HR professionals & other professionals setting the culture: It comes down to educating and preparing the organization to absorb the big data that comes from IoT.

IoT is rich in potential for Human Resources. At the end of the day it’s what these companies do with this information that’s critical.

About the Author: Alex Pop is a South Florida writer and marketer focusing on human capital workplace challenges. Read more of his work here.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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