The Next Big Thing(s) by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine February 2003
Technology continues to advance. This past Christmas, iPods and HD televisions were the hot presents to have, even though many people struggled to use them to their potential once they got them home. What can we expect to see next Christmas? Over the next twelve months, what impact will Moore's Law have on Santa's potential product offerings?
Moore 's Law (memory density and processing speed double every 18 months) continues to drive a large portion of the change in our lives. As Industrial Engineers, we continue to witness the effects of this law through the new technologies that it spawns. When I look out over the next two to three years, I see three key technologies that will become more commonplace, and in turn raise new concerns and opportunities in the workplace – voice recognition, biometrics, and even faster wireless data transfer.
As a time obsessed Industrial Engineer, the first thing I thought of regarding these new potential new tools was the increased potential for monitoring human performance. For example, we will be able to use headsets (really ear pieces only) to capture information about our daily activities, or the activities of others. We will also be able to monitor the conversations of other team members. Chips embedded in employee badges or lapel pins will allow a company to know where all of its employees are at any time, or at least where their badges or pins are. Data for payroll and activity-based costing applications will be automatically collected via wireless data transfer.
Technology has made things such as headsets, data receivers, and analysis software very affordable, and in the case of the electronic devices themselves, very small. We need to remember that Moore 's Law is exponential however in order to appreciate the speed at which things are changing and will change. For example, voice recognition software may not be very sophisticated and accurate yet, but we are probably only two or three years away from that point in time. The technology for wireless communication is accelerating very rapidly now, as evidenced by the automatic updates you can now get on your pager and the ability some of us have to send messages across a meeting room in a very discreet manner.
Both Industrial Engineers and managers will be challenged the most by decisions related to using these tools on other people. Personally, I look forward to the day when I can own such a device for my own use. I am much less enchanted about the potential for becoming wired to the company to a greater and greater degree over the next five years. Personal monitoring devices will become very popular – we will each have to decide how we will use them to monitor and improve human performance.
We will have to decide what data to collect and who to collect it from. We face this decision now when we decide who needs to use the time clock system and who does not. Some companies eliminated such systems years ago – others still use them, primarily to track the comings and goings of hourly employees. I still struggle with the notion that some people are tracked and some are not, especially when the dollar value per hour of executives who rarely use these systems is much higher than those who do clock in and out each day. After all, how hard will it be (is it now) to stick a GPS tracking device into the PDAs we give to each of our managers?
Two key questions thus emerge – why do we need to track employee time usage, and who do we need to monitor in this manner? These new technologies will make it easy to monitor everyone if we want to, just as they will make it easier to capture a wealth of new information from these people. What logic will we use to make such decisions? What rationalizations will we use to exclude those who don't feel comfortable being ‘watched' in this manner? What moral and ethical factors will we employ to help us determine the limits to heightened employee monitoring?
Another key question to ponder is “How will all of this data be used?” We have had the ability to capture time-based performance data for many years, and in the past as with today, issues more often exist with how the data is used versus how it was collected. We have each probably known someone that was notorious for using data to demean or punish people, and we have in turn withheld certain types of information to protect our peers. Without the technological edge however, we were limited in our ability to conduct studies of great detail or long duration – the costs to summarize and analyze the information in particular was overwhelming. These limitations kept us in check to some degree.
Personally, I have my own beliefs about who should be tracked, what types of information should be collected, and how that data should be used to improve human performance. I have also thought a lot about where the limits should be drawn to honor personal privacy. I do not however have the answers to the tough questions that will become more and more prominent regarding the future applications of these, and other technologies. Organizational culture will play a big role in helping to answer them, but each person who is charged with making such decisions will really need to think about the potential impact of them as we move forward.
Voice recognition, biometrics, and wireless data transfer will impact our lives at work and away from work to a significant degree in the next five years. Moore 's Law will also provide us with other changes (improvements?) that have yet to be defined. Those of us in management roles will have to learn to consider these factors more and more as we think about further improving the performance of our people and our companies. We will really have to strive to preserve the human nature of our organizations as we put these new technologies to use in our daily lives.
With these new technologies in place, companies will be able to always know where we are at and what we are saying. Big brother is still getting bigger, but hopefully, he will stop growing at some point in time. It does appear however that we will have a few more years to wait before they can actually monitor what we are thinking, and that is a very good thing … I think.
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