Time to bring ‘quantified self’ technology into the workplace

Identify which activities help achieve business goals, and which are time sucks

With digital sensors beginning to tag along with us everywhere we go, there’s been an increase in the data that others gather about us. Foursquare and any number of other services need to know our location in order to do what they do, for example.

But there’s also a rise in the amount of data we generate about ourselves that perhaps we can use ourselves. Many fitness apps, for example, track workouts and other aspects of our lives. That data can be used to make adjustments and improve the quality of workouts.

This technology domain is referred to as "quantified self." When we attempt to gather large data sets about our own behavior, we’re participating in quantified self technology.

The data can be gathered passively, like a fitness app that calculates how many steps we take in the course of a day. Data collection can also be "active," requiring us to stop several times a day and answer a question or two.

The benchmark for this kind of quantified self data gathering activity is set and reset by Nicholas Felton, a member of Facebook’s design team who’s also the co-founder of Daytum.com, which helps users "collect, categorize and communicate" data they collect about themselves.

Each spring for the last several years, Felton has published an annual report that attempts to document pretty much everything he’s done all year long. The reports include gorgeous data graphics that help Felton himself understand what he’s doing with his time.

But what about harnessing the quantified self movement in service of improving business? I alluded to this sort of thing in my contribution to "2020 Re-Envision: The Future of Real Estate Brokerage," a 2010 Inman News editorial project. My narrative described how a small brokerage might use some of this technology to help organize meetings and decision-making based on meeting attendees’ physical and emotional state (this technology already exists, by the way).

But what about other uses for quantified self?

Obviously, self-monitoring can be used to to determine how much time you spend doing a particular kind of activity. People are notoriously bad for over or underestimating how much time they spend doing things.

What if an agent participated in a quantified self program? It could let them know what percentage of their time was spent on various activities, such as helping existing clients, communicating directly with potential clients, marketing to potential clients via social media, or whatever categories of activity are important or relevant for the business model.

Tying this data back metrics and business analytics might yield some insights into activity areas that could use more development.

Applying quantified self technology across an entire brokerage might yield insights into what level of brand service is actually being delivered to customers. Or perhaps it might help identify which activities achieve business objectives better than others.

Many vendors are already used to a certain type of quantified self: the dreaded time sheet report. I can say, as someone who has kept many of these for many years, that they absolutely are a complete pain in the ass. They can hamper the goal of delivering a good product just as often as they help.

However, a key facet of quantified self is to make data gathering as passive and non-intrusive as possible. Tying activity to business goals achieved (and not just billable hours) may help vendors discover which activities are truly useful — in a strategic sense — for achieving customer satisfaction, and which are simply time sinks and morale busters.

The key to successful quantified self apps and implementations seems to be tied to how intrusive the system is. If it’s like the billable hours sheet, it can be resented as a form of busy work. If it’s used primarily as a form of punishment for not doing activities (with no regard to whether business objectives are being achieved), then it will be resisted.

But if it can be deployed in a way that is honest, and aimed at discovering what is working at an individual level, then somehow it turns into a game — something fun, that can also be used to identify good decisions.

With so much technology being deployed outwards — toward customers — it might be interesting to apply some of that same technology inwards, at the business itself.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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