In The Atlantic:
Measuring Up
2 December 2013

¶ Don Peck doesn’t mention The Circle, Dave Eggers’s recent novel about measuring up at work, and that’s the creepiest thing about his report on “people metrics,” “They’re Watching You at Work.” That and his conviction that analytic algorithms are going to open up the workplace to all sorts of sideliners. Measuring skills is not intrinsically harmful, but the very human tendency to line up measurements in rankings introduces, as Eggers shows, a corrosive element.

For a sense of what the future of people analytics may bring, I turned to Sandy Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In recent years, Pentland has pioneered the use of specialized electronic “badges” that transmit data about employees’ interactions as they go about their days. The badges capture all sorts of information about formal and informal conversations: their length; the tone of voice and gestures of the people involved; how much those people talk, listen, and interrupt; the degree to which they demonstrate empathy and extroversion; and more. Each badge generates about 100 data points a minute.

Pentland’s initial goal was to shed light on what differentiated successful teams from unsuccessful ones. As he described last year in the Harvard Business Review, he tried the badges out on about 2,500 people, in 21 different organizations, and learned a number of interesting lessons. About a third of team performance, he discovered, can usually be predicted merely by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. (Too many is as much of a problem as too few.) Using data gathered by the badges, he was able to predict which teams would win a business-plan contest, and which workers would (rightly) say they’d had a “productive” or “creative” day. Not only that, but he claimed that his researchers had discovered the “data signature” of natural leaders, whom he called “charismatic connectors” and all of whom, he reported, circulate actively, give their time democratically to others, engage in brief but energetic conversations, and listen at least as much as they talk. In a development that will surprise few readers, Pentland and his fellow researchers created a company, Sociometric Solutions, in 2010, to commercialize his badge technology.

Yikes! say we. Elsewhere in the December issue, Michael Ignatieff gets to the bottom of a tired old problem in “Machiavelli Was Right” (not online). Machiavelli was right, of course, precisely because he was a humanist in earnest. There is no room in politics for wishing that people would behave better than they do. (Leading them to behave better is an entirely different matter.) Ignatieff winds up beautifully:

What [Machiavelli] refuses to praise is people who value their conscience and their soul more than the interests of the state. What he will not pardon is public displays of indecision. We should not choose leaders who agonize, worrying about the moral hazards of the power they exercise in the people’s name. We should choose leaders who sleep soundly after taking ultimate risks with their own virtue. They are doing what must be done.

Well, when it can be done.

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