New York Times, April 20
Breakthroughs in workforce science, a new field of study which leverages Big Data, are making it possible to change the workplace so that it is more adaptive to the needs of workers. In some cases, workforce science calls into question long-held beliefs about what makes employees effective. For example, workforce science has found that an applicant’s work history is not always a good predictor of future results. Overall, workforce science adds a large dose of data analysis to the field of HR management, which has traditionally relied heavily on intuition and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning.
Workforce science, in short, is what happens when Big Data meets HR management. For too long, most companies have been flying completely blind, without any way to measure the workplace. Today, every e-mail, instant message, phone call, line of written code and mouse-click leaves a digital signal. These patterns can now be inexpensively collected and mined for insights into how people work and communicate, potentially opening doors to more efficiency and innovation within companies. Digital technology also makes it possible to conduct and aggregate personality-based assessments, such as by using online quizzes or games, in far greater detail and numbers than ever before. In the past, studies of worker behavior were typically based on observing a few hundred people at most. Today, studies can include thousands or hundreds of thousands of workers, an exponential leap ahead.
While some experts raise questions about the data-gathering technology, likening it to worker surveillance, companies by and large view workforce data as a valuable asset. They are finding new ways to measure and quantify the talent search and hiring process, going so far as to acquire data-centric companies that can give them an edge in recruiting, hiring and training. The penchant for digital measurement and monitoring seems most suited to hourly employment, where jobs often involve routine tasks, but is now being expanded to other jobs as well, including sales. This has been made possible by the creation of new measurement tools to test emotional intelligence, cognitive skills, working memory and propensity for risk-taking.
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