Consulting » IT strategy: Watch out

Robert Jaques

Few would attempt to argue that computer technologies in general, and PCs in
particular, have not had a profound and beneficial impact on staff productivity
across firms of all sizes in virtually all sectors. The business PC came of age
with the arrival of spreadsheet software in the form of Lotus 1-2-3 in the
distant days of the mid-1980s.

Since the advent of this ‘killer application’ PCs have steadily become ever
more firmly cemented onto corporate desktops and into FDs’ budgets. The benefits
offered by these now ubiquitous devices are unquestionable, but for more than
two decades the PC has been lacking a new killer app that could have a truly
profound impact on worker productivity.

But fear not. If a series of technology patents filed by Microsoft in the US
at the end of January ever go into production, it is possible that there will be
just such a technology revolution for the corporate PC.

However, we do not believe that it will be a bloodless revolution. In fact,
if Microsoft’s latest ideas for computer-based staff monitoring technologies
come to pass, we predict claret all over the corporate carpets. The firm’s new
patents sketch out details of a system that very closely monitors employee
computer use. The system, as described, would log actions such as web pages
visited or words typed. But, and here comes the scary part, it will then
correlate this data against biological monitoring data such as heart rate,
breathing, body temperature, facial expressions and blood pressure taken from
staff via wireless sensors.

In fact, the idea of the personal computer has taken on a new and very
sinister meaning in light of the software giant’s vision for an Orwellian future
of computer users under constant electronic surveillance. Imagine if office
workers were routinely connected up like laboratory guinea pigs to PCs that
monitor every move they make. What if these computers spied on core bodily
functions and even attempted to gauge workers’ mental states, so they could
“help” them?

According to the patent application, the technology can automatically detect
“frustration or stress in the user” and then, also according to the patent, help
to alleviate these stresses. The problem that we can envisage is that such
technology is very likely to make most users’ frustration and stress levels go
through the roof just by being switched on.

So what are the likely implications of this technology if it ever goes into
production? Let’s guess here that the Microsoft marketing maestros will come up
with a snappy name like BigBrother 2013 for the product. Perhaps it will have an
equally snappy marketing strapline along the lines of “total paranoia equals
total awareness” or “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that we’re
not out to get you”.

Now, let’s suspend our disbelief and set aside the obvious concerns over
personal freedom. Surely, it could be argued that such a system has the
potential to offer compelling benefits? Companies will be able to sweat their
assets more effectively as their assets sweat. Workers will be forced to
constantly ensure that their productivity is maximised. The technology would
allow firms to expand home working programmes safe in the knowledge that those
toiling remotely will be monitored to ensure that they are not spending the day
watching reality TV.

Even if workers did agree to be wired to these monitoring devices, a chorus
of doubt has been sounded by legal experts over whether such monitoring would
fall foul of UK and international laws. Even if one country allowed
implementations, the waters will be muddied by the international nature of
businesses. Multinational companies would have to navigate a minefield of
privacy laws and regulations across the countries in which they operate. How,
for example, would a US firm stand if it tried to monitor staff in the UK using
technology located in a data centre in India? And what would be the reaction of
unions and workers’ councils to moves to wire up their members?

Let us suspend our disbelief still further and consider what would happen if
these issues were overcome. At this point companies would need to look at
costings. It would fall to FDs to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of deploying
the monitoring systems. What should an FD do if the IT team emerges from the
bowels of the server room advocating the adoption of such technology? What is
likely to be the value of such a system? What ROI projections would be offered?

The bottom line is that such a system could only operate in a corporate
environment if there are workers left to be monitored. As with many technically
viable, but ill-conceived, ideas the biggest problems will certainly come from
the human factor; from conflicts arising when the hardware and software meet
what is sometimes described as the “wetware”. While there is little doubt that
it would be technically possible to facilitate the monitoring described in
Microsoft’s patents, companies considering deploying them should prepare for a
mass exodus of their best staff.