Tracking offline activities: Proximity

A technology for informing COVID-19 contraction could capture offline interpersonal activities for better people analytics, I hope.

A missing piece of communication data: offline interpersonal activities

One of the discussions in LPA is interpersonal connectivity might yield some insights to measure and drive performance at organizations. In this digitalized world, it is easy for companies to track emails and meetings between employees and customers. Analysis of such data could result in better performance measurement and evaluation, risk management, etc. However, we did not see any example to cover face-to-face conversation.

Interpersonal communication could mean talking to someone face-to-face, walking over to the other corners of the office, or running into someone in a hallway. But how could we track these offline activities? This is where we discussed and believed that they are important but not being captured. These missing pieces would be another key information that People Analytics might want to incorporate into a model. What if there’s a technology that might give a proxy about this offline communication?

Proximity Tracking

During this COVID-19 tough time, Google and Apple proposed tracking technology relying on Bluetooth. Unlike other geolocation tracking technology, which might raise concerns about privacy and even illegal[1], this new technology track “proximity” between two devices. The article described it to be used during the COVID-19 pandemic that will inform people who might be in contact with positive tested people.

Bluetooth Proximity Tracking
Source: Google and Wall Street Journal

A key advantage here is that the identifier keeping changing makes the user anonymous, statistically speaking. IT departments may not be able to track, again statistically speaking, who owns the key at each time.

Usage

Let’s imagine if we push the technology to another level, now we almost have a complete workplace communication tracking system. We have telephone, computer,  text message on Slack or Workplace, email, and now proximity.

What can we get from having this proximity data? Now we might know that our best engineers are those who walk back and forth between sales to get feedback from clients. Or we might know that our marketing team lead is not coaching his new joiner. We could then use this data to measure what is going well, and what should be fixed. Also, this interpersonal measurement could show us what kind of culture an organization is and make sense of relational analytics[3].

Challenge

There is a requirement that employees have to carry the device all the time. In some companies, they might want to install the technology in the employee ID cards that would be carried all day all time. This will definitely add more complications for HR department to keep generate non-traditional ID cards.

The analytic part is also not easy. To make use of this, it is not the first data point that small companies want to use. For example, a startup with less than 50 people sitting in the same floor could assume that everyone know each other and connect to all. Thus, only companies at a certain scale can spend their money to squeeze the last drop of juice out.

Conclusion

Despite the pandemic, the new tech giant might produce a technology that People Analytics team could use to get the information that wasn’t available before. Instead of using privacy concerned practice, proximity tracking could solve the challenge while maintaining annonyminity of the users. I hope this technology could lead us to a better model of organization that we capture organization cultures, a part that has been offline despite the digital era.

 

 

[1] Austermuehle, E., 2016. Monitoring Your Employees Through GPS: What Is Legal, And What Are Best Practices?. [online] Greensfelder.com. Available at: <https://www.greensfelder.com/business-risk-management-blog/monitoring-your-employees-through-gps-what-is-legal-and-what-are-best-practices> [Accessed 14 April 2020].

[2] Winkler, S., 2020. Here’S How Apple And Google Plan To Track The Coronavirus Through Your Phone. [online] WSJ. Available at: <https://www.wsj.com/articles/heres-how-apple-and-google-plan-to-track-the-coronavirus-through-your-phone-11586618075?mod=business_minor_pos7> [Accessed 14 April 2020].

[3] Leonardi, P. and Contractor, N., 2018. Better People Analytics. Harvard Business Review,.

 

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3 thoughts on “Tracking offline activities: Proximity

  1. Great insight, Mo. The government of Vietnam recently launched a similar technology, but instead of relying on Bluetooth, the app uses QR code to track people who have been in proximity (i.e. instead of shaking hands, now people scan QR codes when meeting each other). The app is warmly welcomed by the general public in Vietnam, quickly climbing to the top downloaded list on app store. The key success seems to rely on how much people are willing to adopt the app (in this case, the act of scanning QR when meeting other people) and where the emphasis on collectivism outweighs individualism (or the benefit of the community is superior to self interest). I imagine this tech will not work so well in a “free” society where no one can monitor and tell anyone what to do.

  2. Hi Mo! I appreciate your reflections on the “missing” piece of data due to their offline nature, especially as the COVID situation helps us attend to the nuanced elements of in-person interactions. In terms of the physical tracker, the Hitachi example (a media lab invention) that we’re about to discuss is actually an interesting example where they use a badge with a microphone to capture in-person conversations (the directions & proximity the badges are facing each other + voice detection). It’s an opt-in program that comes with a lot of data privacy implications – I’m curious what motivates employees to agree to its use – the opportunity to see their collaboration network? Understanding their own physical movements? I also had a guest speaker in an HKS class yesterday that talked about the consideration of surveillance infrastructure to track & allocation resources to the population without smartphones in times like our current one – an aggregated measurement of proximity I guess.

  3. Fascinating blog post, Mo! I would personally be against this application of proximity data, mainly because of the potential negative uses of the technology. Imagine instead of alerting people about Covid-19 exposure, the same technology was used to track protesters and dissidents… our right to privacy is easing encroached upon and very hard to restore, especially once the technology is developed. I would want to see clear security and permissions settings before such applications are developed and implemented.

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