Measuring productivity on the computer

Stephen Baker, author of "The Numerati"

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: We work all kinds of different jobs. It's hard to compare what a machinist does, for example, with someone who works in an office. But commentator Stephen Baker has noticed that, in some ways, digital age companies are using some Industrial Age tactics to measure their employees.


Stephen Baker: It was more than a century ago that an engineer named Frederick Taylor walked into factories and starting timing workers with a stop watch. He dissected their movements, and organized them more efficiently. He turned factory production into a science.

Information workers have labored largely outside the range of such measurement. After all, it's easier for bosses to count the revolutions of a crankshaft than the generation of ideas.

But now office workers are marching straight toward the assembly line. The monitoring tool, the 21st century equivalent of Taylor's stopwatch, is the computer. Those of us who use them produce rivers of data describing the hours of our work day. Cell phones and Blackberrys add even more details. Now scientists are starting to track our behavior, much like Taylor, and figure out how to squeeze more production out of us.

This is happening at IBM research. Dozens of mathematicians and computer scientists -- I call them the Numerati -- are poring over the data of 50,000 of their colleagues. They're looking at their contacts, calendars, the patterns of the emails they write, the information they post on social networks. Their goal is to build mathematical models of the workers and then manage them with algorithms.

The way IBM describes it, managing will be a little like booking a vacation online. Let's say the manager needs to send a five-person team to Beijing. She types in the particulars, and the system searches for just the right workers. They should be compatible, live near airports, have the right language and technical skills and come in under budget. Maybe they all have thrived in Asia or in smokey locales.

By representing workers as math, IBM hopes to find right person for the right job at the right price at exactly the right time. And that's how, by delivering the details of our work and our lives to the Numerati, we assume our position in the new global assembly lines of information workers. It's enough to make you want to grab a dumb old pencil, and sharpen it. It's enough to make you want to grab a dumb old pencil and sharpen

Moon: Stephen Baker is the author of "The Numerati." He's a senior writer for Business Week magazine.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...