Full disclosure: Employers shouldn't let the value of employee data overshadow ethical collection and use

Businesses can use employee data to increase productivity and improve the workplace, but they should collect and use the data in a transparent and ethical way.

Full disclosure: Employers shouldn't let the value of employee data overshadow ethical collection and use Businesses can use employee data to increase productivity and improve the workplace, but they should collect and use the data in a transparent and ethical way.

More companies are collecting data on their own employees than ever before. I talked with Conner Forrest of 451 Research about this practice and the ethical implications that need to be kept in mind. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

Karen: Conner thanks for being with us, lets start with the ways in which data is actually being collected.

Conner: We have our 451 voice of the enterprise of research data that shows that not only are companies, like you said, collecting that data, but it's one of the top five ways they're collecting data and analyzing it. And so the way we think about employee data is there's a couple main buckets that we're getting that data from. So one is we think about the software tools and technologies that employees are using. We can see how employees are performing. We can use things like optical character recognition, natural language processing to see, you know, what they're talking about, what documents they're creating, what files they're creating. So there's data there, right? There's data around the performance of the employee, how they're engaging with the business as well. But increasingly, we're also seeing data from the connected enterprise, the Internet of things, a process through edge computing and additional technologies like that.

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So you have data not only around how the employee is interacting with business tools and processes, how they're moving online. We also have data on how they're working and interacting in the physical space of the office and outside of its walls as well. And so that's data that's being combined with the performance data to give us a really big picture of not only how employees are performing, but we look at their health and wellness, we can see kind of sentiment analysis, see how they're feeling about their job. There's quite an array of ways we're collecting data.

Karen: I think when you hear that though, the first thing that comes to mind at least for me, is privacy. You know, people might be like, "Whoa, this is a little too much information that they will have on employees." So talk a little bit about the privacy concerns and where we're seeing that moving in that realm.

Conner: So, data itself has a quite a bit of potential in terms of value for business and I think it would be very wise for business leaders to not get ahead of themselves when they think about data collection, data analysis, data processing and all the steps in that vein. But like you said, there are quite a few privacy and security concerns. The main being kind of the ethical and moral considerations of not only how you're collecting the data, right? Are we disclosing that properly to employees? Do they know coming into this job or this position that this type of data will be collected? But then also how are we using it? And so I think the main challenge for businesses is not only to be transparent about the data they're collecting, but also how they're processing that data, how they're storing it, and also how they're analyzing it, how will the data analysis impact the relationship of the employee to the organization and vice versa.

And so I think that's going to be the biggest concern for businesses going forward. The value of data is just going to get higher and higher because the things that we can do with data are going to become more and more complex. But before business leaders get ahead of themselves in jumping into trying to put these processes and these projects into play, they need to take a step back and think about how will the collection of data impact the relationship with the employee, how will it impact their brand, but also how it would impact their perception of the world around them in the market.

Karen: As company leaders increase data collection on employees, how does it impact them and their experience?

Conner: So as company leaders continue to increase their collection processing and analysis of employee data, it's not just a benefit for the company itself. We're going to see this trickle down to the employees as well in a couple of different ways. To kind of break it down by the types of data we're seeing analyzed. You know, in a recent voice of the enterprise survey that we did, employee data, that's data on productivity, resource utilization, quite a few other things was being collected and analyzed by about 28% of our respondents. That puts it as within the top five for the data that we're seeing analyzed.

And so, it's an important thing for companies. They're thinking more deeply about it. And the way that that's going to impact employees is it's going to lead to more contextual tools. So we've already seen this start to happen in what we consider the the intelligent workspace market, workspace being kind of this catch all place where we see apps, and data, and content that's available for an organization.

So the way that's going to change is that not only will you have just say your basic app launcher, but if we have data around an employee, say what their role is, what their general functions are within the organization, companies who build workspace tools will be able to surface the most relevant content, the most relevant applications, the most relevant data, so that when an employee sits down to start their day, it's much easier for them to just get going, get through the most important tasks and move on.

That particular use case will also impact onboarding. Hire someone new, someone changes roles in the company, we expect that with the use of employee data augmented in the future by things like machine learning, we're also going to see a much shorter ramp up time to productivity. So onboarding is going to take much shorter time, but also we're going to see new employees and employees who changed roles, just really jumping into the fray a lot more quickly.

Additional things that we're going to see is I cover a lot in the space of corporate performance management, which are these overarching megalithic tools that show us all the KPIs of an organizations, so your resource utilization, your financial data, so on and so forth. But the way we see employee data interacting with CPM is we can see that data being brought into a CPM suite, analyzed, processed with things like machine learning, and they can give business leaders not only a better view of their employee, but how changes in your key performance indicators, changes in top line revenue, how the employee grows, how does it impact the employee, how does it impact their experience, how does that impact their engagement and their productivity?

And so a lot of times, you know, what we're measuring now with corporate performance management are your basic business metrics, right? It's what keeps the business going. But a big part of what keeps a business going is your employees, and so as we see employee data get collected and analyzed on a deeper level, we're going to see that fold into corporate performance management and really give us a broader picture, not only of how a company grows, how it changes, how it evolves, but how those changes impact the employee and vice versa.

Karen: Thank you, we appreciate your insight...Conner Forrest with 451 Research.

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By Karen Roby

Karen Roby is a reporter for TechRepublic. Prior to joining CBS Interactive, Karen worked as an anchor and reporter for several CBS affiliate stations owned by Hearst Communications and Gray Television.