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Empower Your Employees with Data: Q&A with Jeanne Ross

Cornerstone Editors

Most Millennials in today's workforce say they’re overwhelmed by technology. The influx of digital improvements they encounter every day — from a new app or Intranet feature to new ways to communicate with colleagues — are causing distractions, and, in some cases, slowing productivity. These advancements are collecting loads of data that need to be deciphered, too. Here's the good news: this endless stream of numbers floating in the cloud can actually serve as a way to empower employees if utilized properly.

We spoke with Jeanne Ross, director and principal researcher at MIT Sloan's Center for Information Systems Research about how to use data to empower employees and allow them to find their fit within the company.

Why is data important to a company's bottom line?

Studies have found that people are not engaged at work. Our sense is we tend to think of that as, "Well, you’re not getting as much from your people as you want, or maybe you could," but the real issue here is even more serious than that. In an environment where data is ubiquitous and anybody can get to data, a company's only potential competitive advantage is to make sure its people use data better than other companies. That’s the opportunity — if you’re not doing that, somebody’s going to come along and just eat your lunch. I think that’s inevitable long term.

How can managers use data to empower employees?

We did a fun case study at [security company] Protection 1. They told us how their CEO believes that if you give people the right information, and clarity around their goals, they will do good things. To some extent, you find some people for whom it’s not true — so it doesn’t work 100% of the time — but it sure does tell you who your good people are.

What they started doing at Protection 1 is the CEO would call his direct reports and say, "OK, I was looking at my dashboard. Here’s where it appears you have an issue. What do you think the problem is? How are you going to address it? What do you need from me?" And then he would teach those people to go to their branch leaders and look at the same scorecard and ask the same questions.

I think that coaching is essential and most people do not understand coaching. They think it’s training, and it’s totally different from training. Coaching is much more persistent. It’s much more about asking questions. It’s much more about asking people to relate what they did with what they were expected to do and what they think they could do. It’s much more personal.

How can managers make employees feel comfortable enough to use this high-level data to make business decisions? Does that just come with practice and coaching?

I actually think it does. You still have to give people the initial training on these systems, but it just doesn’t sink in, and it’s not reasonable to think it will. I think we actually all know that.

One of my favorite stories was at an insurance company, where they’d given everybody this fabulous workstation in their claims processing area, and then they started keeping track of how everybody was doing in terms of average number of claims processed per day. I’m not going to get the numbers exactly right, but let’s say the average number of claims processed per day is 18 per person. They looked at the range, and over time, some people averaged two per day and some averaged 35.

So what they do is they go to the people who are processing two, and they say, "The average is 18, and you’re only doing two." Invariably, they either hurry up or they say, "I don’t know how people could possibly do so many. I just don’t understand it."

In one case where a person responded that way, they went to her workstation, and when they got there, they saw stickies, little Post-it notes, everywhere to provide reminders when the system could actually do that for her. So they spent a lot more time working with her on how to use the system. I actually don’t know long term if they just decided this was the wrong calling for her, or if they were able to get her fully engaged in the system and using it effectively, but it highlighted the opportunities for managers to make decisions based on data.

What kind of data is important for companies to pay attention to?

There are two kinds of data that are really important here. One is performance data: You can’t really empower employees with data if you don’t have a sense of how people are performing and of how you expect them to perform. Second, you need really good data that can allow employees to serve the customers. Maybe it’s about the product, maybe it’s about the customers themselves, but the employees have to have really good data on that.

If they have those two kinds of data, you should be able to get great service from your service people, and you’ll quickly know who’s in that role that’s just not cut out for it. Either they get better, or you realize they’re not going to get better, because it’s just not in them. That’s not the worst thing in the world, because in a lot of companies, there would be other roles that you could funnel them to. It doesn’t necessarily mean you become this brutal employer who knocks people off.

I just think utilizing this data is a win-win. You learn how to get the great customer and product data, partner data, whatever you need out there, and you collect this automated data so people are not surprised when their manager says, "It looks to me like you’ve got a problem," and employees are not surprised because they got the same feedback. They’re not performing at the level that was expected. I don't think this is the solution to every problem, but in the digital economy, if I wanted to make sure I was competitive, I would make this a very high priority.

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