Digital Shadows: The Rise of New Workforce Productivity Issues

Jan 24, 2019

Don't look now, but you're casting a digital shadow, one that looms larger with each passing hour. Every e-mail, voice mail, text message, digital photo, search engine query, music download, and DVR recording increases the magnitude of your shadow—and don't forget the surveillance cameras constantly monitoring many private as well as public spaces. Everyone, with few exceptions, casts a digital shadow these days. When you think about it in such terms, it feels as if the whole world is casting a digital shadow so enormous it threatens to eclipse the moon.

"Our digital universe is expanding at an amazing rate," says Kevin Oakes, CEO of  the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). "And our research with the world's top companies shows that most are struggling to adapt to it on many levels, from what is appropriate social networking regulation, to hiring, developing, engaging, and retaining the internal talent who knows best how to utilize these new tools and processes. The myriad of issues facing companies today— from the current economic environment to how to adapt to this expanding digital universe—is unprecedented. The agility of corporate leaders and the ability of companies to adapt to change are the primary skills needed to be successful in today's environment."

Your digital shadow is made up of computer-mediated information that you generate and that is in turn an archive of data created about you. It "lives" in this fast-expanding digital universe along with a growing multitude of shadows from the rest of your environment, from the home you live in to the roads you travel and the organization in which you work.

Other sources confirm the critical nature of this digital universe, which is a kind of doppelganger representation of our own. That universe expanded even as the global economy shrank in 2008, according to a study commissioned by EMC Corp. In fact, the amount of digital information created in 2007 exceeded the total amount of storage available for the first time, averaging out to about 45 gigabytes of data for every person on Earth.

This exponential expansion has serious potential implications on workplace productivity, creating a number of new issues for managers to deal with.

As the Institute noted in 2008, digital shadows allow employers to track the efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge workers as never before. Employee profiles can be discerned from these shadows, divulging work habits, reward preferences and engagement levels. Companies such as IBM and Microsoft are already exploring these concepts. But digital shadows also allow for the unparalleled invasion of much of what has traditionally been considered private space. HR professionals will need to become considerably more expert in how these technologies are used to measure work performance and will also need to learn how to best manage the potential minefields that such technologies may represent. "This enlarging digital shadow is going to force a change in how we think about privacy," says Paul "Sandy" Sanders, HR researcher at Institute-member company Intel Corp. "Information about us is gathered and shared, and often we don't even know it's happening, let alone give consent. The balance of privacy and the rights of those who can gather data is shifting and will have profound consequences."

Another implication for productivity is that digital shadows can increasingly be seen and interpreted, both by humans and by digitized "sensory" technologies. Augmented reality is an example in which the real world is overlaid with digital information. In Amsterdam, for example, it's possible to download an application called Layar onto certain kinds of cell phones and then look through the camera to see digital information relating to everything from the food served in certain restaurants to the jobs available in certain corporate buildings, layered on top of real-world images. iPhones are also getting into the act, with one application showing, for example, the location of the nearest subway stations in London superimposed on the view from the camera.

Clearly, such applications can help boost employee productivity in the real world, providing a kind of just-in-time learning experience and allowing workers to find and assimilate information much more quickly. Yet, such applications are just the beginning, with technology pioneers such as Pattie Maes and colleagues working on "sixth sense" technologies that literally overlay information on the real world in even more seamless ways.

There are also implications for using these new technologies to boost efficiencies and effectiveness in various industries, including health care. For example, new health-care technologies may be able to use digital shadows to reduce medical costs. One company is working on taking data from CAT scans and combining it with blood flow simulation software. Such technology might be able to reduce angiography costs while improving the health of patients. Medical augmented reality might also reduce the need for other invasive and costly procedures when combined with existing technologies such as ultrasound echography imaging. Improved worker health, and methods for controlling healthcare costs, are, of course, among the highest priorities of the day.

Digital shadows are already being used by recruiters, and this trend will likely gain momentum. Last year alone, the percentage of employers using the social networking sites to screen candidates more than doubled over the previous year. Today, about 45% of recruiters use social networking sites to find information on job candidates' backgrounds, and an increasing number have been prompted to either hire or pass over candidates based on what they discover.

As people's digital footprints grow, recruiters will have ever more information on which to draw, but they'll find this is a two-way street. Controlling brand messaging will become more difficult as it will become easier for disgruntled former employees, for example, to post information about their employers via augmented reality. It's possible that someone viewing a street-level image of a firm's corporate headquarters may be shown harsh comments about the company superimposed on the building.

As technologies grow more advanced, the combination of image (including facial and object) recognition software, search technologies, and automated data mining will allow people to gather data on a just-in-time basis. This will deliver a deluge of information about businesses, people, products and services, a flood that will also require advanced information-filtering tools.

Although these technologies will provide workers with digitized senses akin to "e-ray" vision, telepathy, and augmented intelligence, they will also have productivity-hindering downsides. Multitasking is already a challenge in today's workplace, fragmenting the focus of employees. Such problems will probably worsen. Along with "super senses" could come super preoccupations: continuous online game playing, constant seamless access to friends and family, a flood of entertainment media increasingly more customized to individual tastes, online betting or other addictive activities that are hidden by ever more miniaturized display technologies, and so forth. The race between corporate policy and emerging technologies is about to get much more difficult to win.

The problems and potentials associated with these technologies are not terribly "futuristic." For the most part, they already exist and will quickly become a part of the mainstream corporate landscape. The sooner that planners and managers figure out how to successfully leverage them, the more benefit they'll derive in terms of productivity. But with so many organizations still struggling to catch up with yesteryear's technologies, it's likely that those who proactively manage these trends will derive a sizable competitive benefit.

The Institute's 4-Part Recommendation:

  1. Put together a multifunctional team to study the workforce implications of the expanding digital universe.
  2. Have the team list the many drivers of these trends, both external and internal to your organization.
  3. Use scenario planning to get an idea of how these issues could play out over the next three years.
  4. Create a sustainable process for tracking these trends, gaining insights into which scenarios are closest to playing out, and respond as strategically as possible to events as patterns emerge.