At Chiquita, Ledford is exploring predictive analytics to help the company find, train and retain its "bananaeros"—experts in growing bananas. "Those guys are really hard to find, as bananas have taken a backseat to coffee and tourism," says Ledford. Analytics could enable managers to predict which lower-level employees "could become our next wave of banana folks," says Ledford, and determine the right training and grooming to make that happen.
There's also a gold mine of information in how people move through an organization, and a handful of companies are looking at physically tracking employees—often via RFID-enabled badges—to find out how people work and what impact that can have on business outcomes.
"The barrier at this point is not the technology," says Waber, whose Sociometric Solutions is an early provider of sensor-based analysis. "I can tell you how much more money a company makes when two employees eat lunch together. We can do extremely sophisticated things. The challenge is that organizations are not used to looking at themselves this way."
When GM's Arena was senior vice president of leadership development at Bank of America in 2010, the financial services company used sensors to track 90 call-center workers over the course of several weeks and found that those in the most cohesive networks were the most productive. By switching from solo to group break times, encouraging more socialization, agents improved efficiency by 10 percent. "As silly as it sounds, it worked," says Arena. "The analytics told us it was probably the right thing to do." Sometimes it's as simple as moving desks closer together, says Waber. Steelcase's Sullivan has discovered that the size of lunch tables can have an impact on productivity. You can't force people to interact more, says Waber, but based on the data, you can "engineer serendipity."
Although Arena conducted a number of experiments using sensor data at BofA, he's not quite ready to start tracking workers at GM. "I'm a huge advocate of sensor work," Arena says. "But it's laden with trust and privacy issues and a lot of organizations just aren't ready for that. It can be a bit of a slippery slope."
Praxair is conducting a pilot using sensors on its remote workers. The system will measure how long it takes a worker to, say, install a tank for a customer, by monitoring their movements via a sensor on their protective equipment. The sensor also monitors workers for exposure to harmful gases. If gas is detected, an alarm goes off and the monitoring center will attempt to communicate with the worker. Franciosa envisions integrating the sensor data into other corporate systems to uncover correlations between events and particular locations, types of employees, or certifications.
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