Spying in the Office October 25, 2008

Spying in the office
Issue 39

I am currently in the unique position of being able to relive a part of my past, well that’s not completely accurate, perhaps relive is an overstatement, revisit is better is a better description. I have the opportunity to engage in activities that used to give me great pleasure when I was young and the best part is – I get to do it at work! And no it’s not smoking dope on the roof of the architecture building either. There are some parts of the past that should never be repeated, particularly when one enters the professional workforce (a note to our grads).

In my pre teen years I was a bit of an adventurer, although some might describe my behaviours as juvenile delinquency. When I was between the ages of 10 to 12 there was nothing more satisfying or exciting than engaging in activities that I shouldn’t be, and the closer those got to being illegal, the better. I wasn’t blowing up buildings or running a brothel, after all I am referring to my pre teen years, and those activities didn’t start until I was a true teenager.

These were the kind of kid pranks that could get me, or the pre pubescent mob I ran with, in hot water, but not get us incarcerated or killed. This period of my life was spent in Phoenix Arizona where the harsh desert climate makes playing outdoors during the day something even snakes and lizards have the good sense not to do. As a result, my pals and I were permitted to run the neighborhood at night when the temperature dropped. Remember too, these were the days when parents were well into their third martini by sunset, happily watching TV. There were no flash cards or family discussions in my childhood house, heck you could hardly even see a flash card through the cigarette haze.

For my friends and me, the street was our turf at night. We spent the early hours of the evening draping citrus trees with toilet paper, throwing eggs at houses and bombarding passing cars with rotting grapefruit. When that got boring there were fire extinguishers to steal and car tyres to deflate, but none of these pesky activities carried the excitement or thrill of sneaking up to neighbors homes and spying on them. And the things I saw! By gosh there were families eating dinner, people watching television and if you watched for long enough, you might even see a neighbor fall asleep on their couch.

So yes, I will admit it, I like to spy. Now that our IT leader at Geyer has left, and IT reports to me, I have access to something called ‘The Administrative Password’, do you know what that means? It means that at any time I feel like it, I can read your e- mail. I’ll bet you have new found respect for me now. The best part is that it is like my youth all over again, I can spy on people till I am blue in the face!

Now don’t go getting your knickers in a knot over this, I’m just messing with you, actually Mike has the administrative password and he is reading your e- mails not me. Heavens, I don’t even like reading my own e- mails, in fact I don’t, so if I haven’t responded to one you have sent that’s why. The situation is different for Mike, he can read your e mails all he wants because your e- mails are Geyer’s e- mails and it is a company’s right to read them if they so choose.

Some people have found this out the hard way, take Scott Sidell he was fired from his job and his former employer not only read his work e- mail they read his e mail from his personal Yahoo e- mail account. He thought that was a bit rich, so he filed a lawsuit against Structured Settlement Investments, the finance company he used to run because they were also reading the e- mails he sent to his lawyers discussing strategy for his wrongful dismissal case. The case touched on an unsettled area of US law where changes in technology clash with the expectations of personal privacy, because as I have already stated, a company has the right to monitor the equipment they provide you. End of story, no ifs ands or butts, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

This right to monitor extends to your internet use at work as well. I recently had lunch with a friend who has IT reporting into him; as a result he knows the internet behaviours of all of the employees in his company. Naturally, since they are project managers, I assumed he would tell me he discovered the employees were viewing porn at work. After all isn’t that what project managers do when they are not convincing us to do their job? He confirmed this was the case (the porn part, I didn’t share my other observations with him – but he is probably reading this, oops) Here is the surprise; it was not the men but the women doing the watching. I assured him he must have had that wrong, the women were most likely busy working gals with little time to complete the daily tasks life deals us. They were most likely doing their undie shopping on line. My friend clarified, they were not looking at women but men and those men were not wearing undies.

It is surprising to note that while most of the early concern about internet use at work focused on pornography, this has been overtaken by those who obsessively watch the stock market and day trade when they are supposed to be working. Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Giga Information Group, a firm that advises companies on IT says.
”That’s where employees are really wasting their time, I’d definitely put that first,” he added, ahead of sports, personal E-mail, chat rooms and pornography.

The numbers are quite sobering. 22.8 million Americans used Web sites on company time in one month alone. 8.2 million Visited Yahoo Finance, CBS Marketwatch, Schwab E*Trade or other financial sites at work, up from 6 million three months before. The stock market ”is becoming a huge distraction, I can’t imagine that this is not a problem in the workplace,” said Jill Munden, who oversees Silicon Investor Inc., the biggest financial discussion forum.

Of course she is right, especially since 50% of Silicon Investor site visits, which averaged 20 minutes each, came during regular working hours. A designer in Burlingame California confessed ”One second I was in E*Trade, the next second I was doing design in Autocad. I could hide the day trading quite easily”. You can’t really blame the guy for day trading, apparently he made more money doing that than he did being a designer – that’s a big surprise considering how much we earn in this profession. Anyway, I am sure this situation has changed given the world’s current economic status. This guy is probably visiting those on line do it yourself suicide sites now.

As I mentioned earlier when it comes to office spying, it is where the web meets e- mail that the plot thickens; things can get very blurry, particularly when e-mails are sent on the company computer using personal Web –based accounts. Understandably, this makes plenty of people nervous, particularly since e mails have figured into criminal cases like the one against the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers.

It gets even more frightening when you learn that researchers have identified ways to track e –mail word usage patterns within groups of people over time. Therefore an organisation need not waste their time reading individual e- mail, but can track patterns or words in a group of e-mails. It was through this kind of pattern tracking that those poor sods at Enron got caught. They followed the patterns of who e – mailed whom, and whether these communications changed when the company was being investigated to determine the informal networks in the company. It was through understanding the informal networks that the house of Enron fell.

I am sure there are many valid scientific reasons to track e – mail accounts and word usage patterns, scientists have long theorised that by tracking the patterns of a group over time they could learn a lot about what that group was up to. In fact, there are many legitimate data mining companies that do just that, such as IBM’s Almaden Services Research Group in the Silicon Valley. They have set out on a mission to discover, and if they can, exploit the quantifiable, predictive principles that underlie the delivery of technology services. In other words determine how they can make money by spying on you and your computer.

IBM’s approach is a combination of hard and soft sciences, this is particularly interesting since physicist and chemists tend to view social sciences as voodoo, not a serious area of research. Putting together these types of scientist in a room to work on a project is about as copasetic as putting two competing design firms together. Never the less, IBM is combining anthropology, game theory and behavioral economics with technologies from its labs to see if they can make corporate processes run smoother. Jim Spohrer who is the director of the Almaden group notes that “Humans are intentional agents, and intentional agents can resist or accelerate change”.

They believe that by measuring key strokes on computers, or individual internet activities, you can evaluate human behaviours and more importantly the dynamics of a group. This knowledge might lead to improvements in systems or individual adjustments that will improve the processes of an organisation. For example, we could mine the data off of all of our computers at Geyer and see how long it took for project coordinators to approve time sheets. If we found that it took 2 hours and 2000 key strokes to approve time sheets in Vision, we would recognise the productivity loss and might be inspired to simplify our time sheet approval process.

There are other companies that are making money studying our behaviours i.e. spying on us for the company good. Take Herman Miller, yes the same Herman Miller you love because they take you to lunch and sell nice furniture. They are in to spying as well! At the last Neocon in Chicago, Miller launched their Space Utilisation Service designed to accurately audit the needs of individuals, groups and community space. That’s a nice way to say spying. They will do this by attaching remote sensors or ‘motes’ to the underside of your chair to capture movement data.

I reckon the next step in this type of movement monitoring would be to capture data on where people go when they are not in their chair. If we could do that an organisation might for instance note that some employees visited the loo more than others. This would enable the company to work with those individuals to limit their coffee intake or in extreme cases insert a catheter to increase their productivity. We could do what Hewlett Packard is doing with these remote sensors, which is to use the data to convince groups within the organisation to evolve to mobile working arrangements.

The data collected enables the facilities manager to go back to particular groups that indicated no way, no how could they ever share a desk because they sit in them all day long. The data proves they spend about 40% of their day at their desk and are big fat liars. If they really wanted to stir the pot they could also ask them to account for the other 60% of their day.

This idea of looking at patterns of human behaviour in the hopes of determining meaning is not new, it’s anthropology. Dori Tunstall, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who trains designers on anthropological theories and research methodologies describes ‘design anthropology’ as connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts (things) have for people.

Design anthropology seeks to answer questions about how processes and artifacts define what it means to be human. It looks at how we learn, how we adopt to new things and what words mean to different people in different cultures. All of these issues of human context have grown more complex over time. The focus of design anthropology is on connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts have for people. Dori Tunstall believes design anthropology is a field that will help designers like us feel a greater degree of confidence in our design decisions by showing us the global ramifications of the past, current and potential communications, artifacts and experiences as they affect the human context. (listen to this month’s podcast interview with Dori Tiscott for more info on design anthropology)

The specific issues that design anthropology can address relate to four areas of anthropology as defined by H. Russell Bernard, the leading authority on anthropological research methods. These four areas may have ramifications for us as designers:
1. The nature vs. nurture problem – is it your genes or your environment that causes you to respond to something in a particular way.
2. Evolution – how do things expand and change over time
3. The internal vs. external problem – how are behaviours influenced by values or environmental conditions. How is it that the things inside our collective heads or outside in the world drive us to behave in a particular way?
4. The social facts or emergent properties problem – how people are influenced by social forces that emerge from the interaction of humans, but which transcend individuals.

Of all of these the last one, emergent properties, is the one that relates most to us as designers because it tends to lead product and service innovations. It was this type of design anthropology that companies like Steelcase caught on to a few years ago when they introduced their 3T program. 3T involved observing, interviewing and participating in activities in the workplace to gain better insight that would lead to the creation of designs for problems and opportunities that have not yet emerged. 3T was really a method of viewing the past, studying behaviours – spying on people – to see what they did and how they interacted with the physical environment. It was with this kind of insight that Steelcase created new systems that function just like their old systems, but had new laminate colours.

I don’t know about you, but this all starts to confuse me. Being as involved as I am in workplace strategy, you wouldn’t get me saying we shouldn’t dig deep to find out as much as we can about a client before we design a workplace for them, but how deep do we have to dig? Must we observe how people behave in their space over a period of time, do we put sensors on chairs to track movements, or do we mine a company’s data to learn which workplace processes are inefficient? How much is too much, can we really digest it all and in the end will it give us any greater insight?

I will leave you with a quote from Paul Kedrosky’s article The First Disaster of the Internet Age published in Newsweek October 27, 2008. “All of the information needed to diagnose the current credit crisis – the latest and best information about the collapsing prices of mortgage securities, ballooning numbers in the subprime mortgage market, bizarre behaviour on the part of bond rating firms and so forth – has been freely available to anybody who knows how to use Google. But what good is it if the data went unnoticed?”

Bonabeau, Eric. “Predicting the Unpredictable – The collective behaviour of people in crowds, markets and organisations has long been a mystery. Now, some companies are finding ways to analise, and even fortell, such ‘emergent phenomena” The Harvard Business Review, July 3, 2007

Corbett, Sara. “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” The New York Times, April 13, 2008

Glater, Jonathan D; “A Company Computer and Questions About E-Mail Privacy” The New York Times, June 27, 2008

Herman Miller News Archives. “ Herman Miller’s Space Utilisation Service Eliminates the Guesswork in Assessing and Maximising Facility Performance” May 30, 2008

Hershey, Robert D Jr. “Some Abandon Water Cooler for Internet Stock” The New York Times, May 20, 1999

Kolata, Gina. “Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance” The New York Times, May 22, 2005

Solomon, Doug. Know How Talk: Jim Spohrer, IBM Almaden Services Research group IDEO Café, May 31, 2007
Tunstall, Dori, “Design Anthropology, what can it add to your design practice”


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