Data reveals the DNA of an organisation but employees' trust is essential. By Raewyn Court.

With the advent of new technologies, business leaders are gaining unprecedented visibility into their people and their work, and this is driving value, new levels of productivity, agility and speed. But collecting data — via new technologies such as wearables, online activity and workplace applications — is risky. Misuse can compromise privacy or individual rights, prompt incorrect decisions or a misapplication of skills and drive a consequential loss of employee trust in the organisation.

Professional services company Accenture published a report late last year, Decoding Organizational DNA, after surveying 13 industries in 13 countries on the risks and rewards of collecting and using employee data. Although the survey didn't include New Zealand, Justin Gray, managing director of Accenture NZ, says that overall the results here will be similar. "We're increasingly digitising business here in New Zealand and have similar privacy and ethical concerns around data sharing as those surveyed globally."

Gray explains that data can now be mined from a variety of sources in the workplace — including email, calendars, social collaboration tools, smart sensors in the office environment, video and voice recordings and employer-provided devices like wearables, mobile phones or computers.

"This digital trail is increasingly being harnessed and converted into insights, decisions or automated actions by applying analytics, artificial intelligence or human judgment," he says. "The data can also be combined with other information to give a vivid and real-time picture of the workforce — from the quality of a developer's software code, to the accuracy of a reporter's news article, to the efficiency of a courier's route."

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In New Zealand, the forestry sector is looking into wearable technology capable of collecting physiological data such as step and heart rates as an individual performs workplace tasks. Wearable tech company, Movo, is offering a bracelet fitness tracker that counts steps, distance travelled and calories burned, and workforce management company Kronis is offering rewards for staff using wearable technology such as this, including gym membership, superannuation, and wealth management advice for Australasian employees.

Gray says there are numerous opportunities for businesses to use data to unlock the true potential of the workforce and realise new levels of business performance.

"Essentially, this data reveals the DNA of a business. It explains how and why the company works and what makes it tick. It covers work processes, the performance of people and, increasingly, the way people collaborate with intelligent machines. It has the power to improve everything from innovation to agility to cybersecurity to employee performance and engagement."

However, for there to be growth Gray says there must be a level of established trust around the use of this data, and a responsible framework with employees developed.

"There are undoubtedly issues around ethics and transparency, and business leaders are facing some difficult questions. Each year, 2.7 million lives are lost because of work-related stress, accidents or disease. Technology could detect and prevent some of these. Is it then ethical to use wearables to monitor the stress levels of employees and to then step in before a breakdown occurs?"

Accenture's research revealed that 62 per cent of businesses are using new technologies and sources of workforce data extensively, but only 30 per cent of business leaders are very confident that their organisation is using the data in a highly responsible way. Gray says this is because most organisations have yet to put in place the right frameworks, policies and systems to ensure they use workplace data in a responsible and ethical way that benefits employees.

Although employees have concerns about their data being mined, they are overwhelmingly in favour of the practice, with 92 per cent being open to it if the data is collected responsibly and benefits them. Gray says that offering employees benefits in exchange for sharing their data is crucial, "with, for example, fairer pay, customised learning and improved safety and wellbeing".

Gray notes that if business leaders hold back on collecting data because of ethical concerns, they risk leaving value on the table.

"Ninety-one per cent of the 1400 business leaders surveyed recognised that new technologies and sources of workplace data can be used to unlock value. If businesses adopt responsible strategies ... they could see a six per cent increase in revenue growth."

Employee data must be used responsibly in order to build trust among employees. Accenture's research found the difference in growth rates between losing and earning trust through the use of workforce data was 12.5 per cent, which equates to more than US$3 trillion globally.