The long, complicated history of “people analytics” | MIT Technology Review
If you work for Bank of America, or the US Army, you might have used technology developed by Humanyze. The company describes its products as “science-backed analytics to drive adaptability.”
If that sounds vague, it might be deliberate. Among the things Humanyze sells to businesses are devices for snooping on employees, such as ID badges with embedded RFID tags, and built-in microphones that track in granular detail the tone and volume (though not the actual words) of people’s conversations throughout the day. Humanyze uses the data to create an “Organizational Health Score,” it promises is “a proven formula to accelerate change and drive improvement.”
Or perhaps you work for one of the healthcare, retail, or financial-services companies that use software developed by Receptiviti. The Toronto-based company’s mission is to “help machines understand people” by scanning emails and Slack messages for linguistic hints of unhappiness. “We worry about the perception of Big Brother,” Receptiviti’s CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. He prefers calling employee surveillance “corporate mindfulness.” (Orwell would have had something to say about that euphemism, too.)
Such efforts at what its creators call “people analytics” are usually justified on the grounds of improving efficiency or the customer experience. In recent months, some governments and public health experts have advocated tracking and tracing applications as a means of stopping the spread of covid-19.
But in embracing these technologies, businesses and governments often avoid answering crucial questions: Who should know what about you? Is what they know accurate? What should they be able to do with that information? And is it ever possible to devise a “proven formula” for assessing human behavior? Simulmatics, a now-defunct “people analytics” company provides a cautionary tale, writes Christine Rosen, and confirms that all these ventures are based on a false belief that mathematical laws of human nature are real, in the way that laws of physics are.