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Fit-bitting The Dog

On January 12, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights Supreme ruled that Romanian engineer Bogdan Barbulecu’s employer was legally entitled to read his Yahoo correspondence with his fiancée during the workday (Rushton, 2016). According to the court, the company assumed that any monitoring it did would be of work-related content and, therefore, that it was not “unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours”.

The ruling, indeed the underlying case, raises many questions, not only about an individual’s right to privacy in the workplace but also about the extent and nature of electronic surveillance by employers. Employers argue that they obtain a great deal of useful information about overall and individual productivity in their enterprises, particularly for employees in white-collar operations, but the public outcry on the publication of the court’s ruling suggests that this is a highly contentious area.

Ethical-and-Legal-Workplace-Monitoring

As the software segment dedicated to monitoring tools has grown up to satisfy this need, it appears to be running headlong into the many decades of research into what motivates employees. Can a culture that measures employees by “keystrokes on task” be at the same time the kind of culture that will foster innovation and customer satisfaction?

It seems particularly ironic that the use of these tools is expanding at exactly the same time that companies are struggling to nourish workplace cultures that foster individual creativity, problem-solving, personal accountability and passionate dedication to what they stand for. Arguably, the companies that effectively crack the code that determines the right balance between measurement and autonomy will develop a distinctive competitive advantage. In an era of big data worship, is there room for the environments that drive human creativity?

Measurement in the workplace is hardly a new phenomenon. As early as the 1880s, Frederick Taylor and his collaborators developed their theory of “scientific management” which was designed to make industrial production more efficient by minute observation and measurement of steps in the manufacturing process (Hounshell, 1984). Although their theories had been replaced by other theories by the 1930s, they have never entirely disappeared.

Peter Drucker believed that Taylor was a pioneer in what he called knowledge management and more recent innovations in lean manufacturing, the “Six Sigma” system and the Toyota Production System all owe a debt to Taylorism. While scientific management was fiercely opposed by labor unions, as well as satirized in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, its emphasis on paying close attention to what workers actually do also gave birth to the modern discipline of human resource management, whose mission (on its best days) is to help create a positive workplace environment. One unintended consequence of scientific management became known as the “Hawthorne Effect” because it was observed by researcher Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois (Mayo, 1949).

This is excerpted from the full article. Click on the link to the journal below.

“Fit-bitting the dog” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 37 Issue: 2, 2016 pp.50 – 54, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.




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  1. joe sutherland

    This is an interesting article on uses of software to monitor and learn from employees. It recognizes potentially positive outcomes to monitoring methods that could benefit those being monitored. The crux of good corporate culture, however, is leadership. Without it, a certain corporate darwinianism can occur, which may not serve the best interests of those being monitored.

    Your concluding paragraph in the full article in an interesting one:

    “The power of providing employees with direct access to their data remains unproven, but the experience of sports teams and individual athletes who have become intensely data-driven within the past decade suggests that there are great gains to be made in the broader world of general commerce. At the very least, we should embrace the potential to create a new kind of partnership with our employees spread across the globe rather than treating these tools simply as a way to admonish and control. If we are going to focus our employees’ attention on creating a high performance culture, we should at least give them the best tools to achieve one.”

    Those athletes, i would guess, had coaches very much attuned to getting the best out of their athletes. When corporate leaders are equally committed to working with their employees in the same way to teach and learn and grow, the upside is interesting. Without the kind of committed management and leaders that this kind of control demands, however, it is an easy path to use these tools “simply as a way to admonish and control” which neither inspires nor engages employees in a knowledge economy.

    Good article. Thanks.


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