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Cappelli: Complexities of employee monitoring in an AI age

By: | January 30, 2020 • 4 min read
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He hosts "In the Workplace" on SiriusXM Channel 111 with Dan O'Meara. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

The media and the pundit class are fascinated with the idea that artificial intelligence will eliminate many or even most jobs, a claim that goes back at least 100 years—so far with zero evidence.

Where we should instead focus is on how AI will change the way work is done and how organizations are managed. The idea that technology, per se, drives new directions appears to be much less true than the reality that there are choices as to how any technology is used, and the choices seem to help employers push further and faster in the direction they are going anyway.

Let’s take perhaps the most prominent example of figuring out who is where. There is much tsk-tsking about China’s use of facial recognition to identify individuals and what they are doing in public or, even easier, in private. Cameras have to be able to see your face to make that happen, of course, so there are other technologies that don’t even need that. One of them is “gait analysis.” If you are a runner, you will recognize this involves figuring out the idiosyncrasies of how your feet hit the ground to match you with shoes. Because our gait is relatively unique, it is a way of identifying who you are even if we cannot see your face, especially if we have special pads on the ground to measure gait carefully.

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There are even better capabilities within organizations, though, and here we enter the fascinating world—or “space,” as strategy people refer to it—of “interior positioning.”  In other words, figuring out who is in your building and where they are going. Security cameras can obviously do this, again with the limitation that the cameras have to see your face clearly. We also have “typing cadence” software, much like gait analysis for your fingers, to determine whether it is really you on your computer or someone else.

We have long had badges that we have to swipe in and out (and you thought time clocks had gone away?), although they only work when walking into facilities that have a card reader.

Interior positioning means tracking where people are in real time, through their cellphone signals. Nadir Ali, CEO of Inpixon, explained to me what the company and their competitors do. There are now maybe a dozen other companies playing around the space, some of them much bigger security vendors. Why would you want to know where people are in your building at any moment? There are obvious security concerns: Someone who is not an employee is in a sensitive part of our facility. Why are they there?  Another obvious use is to find someone in an emergency, especially in a big facility like a medical center: Your spouse is trying to reach you, and your cellphone seems to be off.

Related: AI can deliver recruiting rewards, but at what legal risk?

Ali says that clients look at anonymized data to find problems, say, in building design: How many people are actually using our meditation room? When are the long lines at our coffee station? You probably know some of this anyway just by looking around, but what if the use isn’t so obvious? (e.g., the meditation room is always jammed after company town-hall meetings.) As with proximity badges (but cheaper and less obtrusive), you could see whether employees interact with each other and where they do it. All that sounds very positive.

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Of course, you could also use this to see how much time Fred is spending in the break room, how long employees are out of the office at lunch, who had been hanging out with the employee who was just fired for embezzlement, and which pair of employees are together so often and in so many private places that it does not seem that their relationship is, shall we say, strictly professional.

Which direction will this technology take us? I’d bet—a lot—that it will take employer by employer wherever they are already headed. In a CFO-driven, penny-watching company, monitoring lunch breaks and looking for cheaters and thieves will be the big priority. A glassdoor-watching, employer-of-choice company will be reducing wait times and designing better office space. Maybe this seems obvious, but we never talk about the fact that technology in the workplace is really an enabler, taking us even faster to where we were already going to go with our employees.

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