Business Report

Finding Office Buck-Passers, Heroes, and Shirkers

Emerging data-mining software tells whether employees are helpful, toxic, or management material—and how well the company functions.

Consider your workplace e-mail style. When asked a question, do you confer with others and attribute your response to the group? Do you avoid making a decision in case you might need to reverse course? If so, you may be a buck-passer, causing a productivity drag in an organization.

Who, me?: A “blow-off scoreboard” charts how long people take to reply to e-mails, counts how many times queries are ignored, and tracks the use of dismissive language.

In the latest in digital employee monitoring, new software can identify such people and discern a range of other traits and behaviors, potentially allowing management to intervene or assign people to tasks better suited to them, boosting productivity.

Software from Cataphora of Menlo Park, California, sorts through terabytes of data created at companies and government organizations—e-mail, instant messages, calendar events, documents, and even phone logs—to pull together a digital character profile of not only individuals but the organization as a whole.

For example, Cataphora tracks use of exclamation points, font color, capitalization, punctuation “cursing,” the way people sign off in an e-mail, and the overuse of certain words, such as “please.”

What’s wrong with “please”? If used in excess, it can be a sign of pleading—which can indicate powerlessness and frustration, often expressed after previous attempts at communication were ignored, explains Elizabeth Charnock, Cataphora’s CEO. Companies might be wise to reach out to a frustrated person or at least keep a closer eye on them to make sure they don’t act out. Similarly, she says, “you don’t want to have buck passers as managers or in leadership positions. You want to have those positions occupied by people who are receiving the buck.” 

The tool—and associated visualizations of the data—builds on the company’s expertise in providing e-discovery and analysis services for law firms poring over company data; Cataphora is now commercializing the monitoring technology.

The idea is to expand the concept of digital monitoring beyond traditional efforts, such as checking whether employees are visiting porn sites or making personal phone calls, to produce a deeper understanding of employee traits and organizational health, says Daryl Nord, professor of management information systems at Oklahoma State University. “No longer does discovery and monitoring software simply view, store, and report,” says Nord. Rather, it is able to “detect anomalies, identify changes over time, or locate different work habits among peers who perform the same job functions.”

He adds: “These smart systems will be able to detect and alert management to potential illegal activities, security threats, and productivity issues as they occur. Management may perhaps investigate the questionable activity at a very early stage and take the appropriate action.”

Another company, SpectorSoft of Vero Beach, Florida, offers software that can be installed in all office electronics, from office workstations to mobile phones. Among other things, it can take screen shots of an employee’s computer at various intervals, and determine when files have been transferred to a USB drive. The company lets employers set up alerts when a worker’s behavior is anomalous or if it detects certain trends, such as prolonged time spent on particular websites.

The software shows employers what percentage of time employees spend e-mailing or using certain applications and who sends the most file attachments, among other metrics. “A lot of companies use it that way to baseline what people are doing,” says Jeani Park, SpectorSoft’s senior director of product strategy. If something changes suddenly, it could be a sign of fraud, she adds.

And in one effort to improve office communications, Lymbix, a startup based in Moncton, New Brunswick, monitors tone in e-mails and issues the writer an alert before he or she hits the send button on an unintentionally cranky-sounding message.

In general, more and more companies have policies about how employees should use their technology, and they are increasingly using software to enforce these policies, says Nancy Flynn, founder and executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. A report by the institute reveals that in 2009, 46 percent of employers surveyed had policies governing the use of social media, 82 percent had policies governing personal use of company e-mail, and 36 percent had policies over use of company-provided instant messaging.

“We have definitely seen a trend upward in terms of the number of employers that monitor Internet use and e-mail,” says Flynn, adding that more employers are starting to watch worker activity on blogs, social media, and cell phones as well.

Cataphora’s approach of creating digital character dossiers on employees is not yet mainstream, Flynn says. And of course, employees might find the concept a bit disturbing. But Charnock believes that the right kind of monitoring and analysis can help good workers shine and protect everyone from the dangers of a malicious or negligent employee. “The world will come around to the idea that monitoring in an appropriate way is appropriate for employees and employer,” she predicts.

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The Future of the Office

The explosion of mobile devices, together with social technologies and smart apps, is creating a new distributed workforce. It’s transforming physical offices and how work gets done. This month, Technology Review examines the implications of this trend for business efficiency, productivity, and security.

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