The need for data empowerment

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A critical question is how big data can be simultaneously empowering for employees and beneficial to employers

The emerging digital economy is transforming both society and the workplace. In particular, the growth of big data gives employers new opportunities for maximising efficiency and productivity. Using analytic techniques, it holds the promise for ensuring that time, resources and people are used to their optimal effect.

Yet too often data strategies employed by organisations ignore their human effect. Specifically, they view these innovations purely in terms of improving business outcomes. Missed is how this will affect the wellbeing of employees. There is a risk that the workforce will become reduced to simply another piece of processed data.

A critical question then for digitalisation is how big data can be simultaneously empowering for employees while remaining beneficial to employers. This concern is particularly important in light of mounting evidence that current empowerment strategies around flexible working and work/life balance often in practice are disempowering – resulting in greater work intensification and enhanced professional anxiety.

New perspectives in HRM like EHRM, digital HRM and HR analytics point the way toward a more empowering digital employment experience both at work and across one’s career. Yet despite their value and innovation, they remain narrowly focused on traditional business metrics of productivity and profit. Required instead is a new HRM-led digital empowerment paradigm that promotes more meaningful work through technology alongside values of digital inclusion and boundary-less empowerment.

Significantly big data is quickly changing the very meaning and practice of workplace empowerment. Notably, analytics can dramatically decrease repetitive administrative responsibilities and in the process give employees more time to focus on more creative and rewarding job related activities. People are further taking advantage of this information to continually enhance their lifelong learning and continuous professional development (CPD).

However, these aspirations are often challenged by a general sense of insecurity pervading the present day economy. Far from improving their working lives, big data has given rise to a precarious “gig economy” marked by zero hour contracts and dwindling wages. According to Nick Srnicek in his book Platform Capitalism.

“The digital economy is becoming a hegemonic model: cities are to become smart, businesses must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent. In this environment, those who work hard can take advantage of the changes and win out. Or so we are told”

Not surprisingly, this promise is increasingly ringing hollow to a population that has had to endure a financial crises followed by a decade long “recovery” that has primarily benefited those on top. Just as troubling, the prospect of a hi-tech “fourth industrial revolution” conjures up mostly dystopian images of mass unemployment rather than shared prosperity and progress.

These worries reveal the need to highlight the contemporary relation of empowerment and engagement. Traditionally, engagement is said to have three dimensions covering an employee’s vigour toward their work, dedication to their job, and the absorption in the task they are doing. For businesses, engagement is important as it leads to both increased productivity and personal wellness. Yet such a positive feeling can be difficult to sustain in light of the larger sense of social, political and economic anxiety.

What is required is what can be termed 'future engagement'. This concept describes the confidence and sense of investment people have in their own personal and organisational future. Key to such an understanding is the degree to which they view new innovations (particularly linked to technology) and prevailing socio-economic trends to be empowering and sustainable or disempowering and threatening. To this effect, the higher future engagement a workforce has, the more productive and satisfied they will be.

To this end, it is absolutely imperative to recalibrate existing organisational and broader cultural thinking and practices to maximise future engagement. Importantly, this must not be merely rhetorical in character, an attempt to overcome legitimate resistance through optimistic managerial and political discourses. Rather, it should be the spur for a sea change to employment relations, one that is forward thinking rather than backward looking. Consequently, a critical function of contemporary HRM is to be pro-active in helping the modern workforce to re-engage with the future.

A critical way then to reverse this trend is through the creation of a genuinely empowering workplace. This means doing more than simply ‘including’ staff in already decided upon strategies. It requires introducing real opportunities for workers to make their voices heard and help shape the direction of the firm. Further, it reflects the need to foster business cultures that deploy digital technology so that they are more responsive to the dynamic, evolving, and individuated needs of its diverse workforce.

Key elements of this updated digital employment contract would therefore include:

  • Making work meaningful: How does digital technology and big data improve your qualitative experience of the workplace? How does it make you feel both empowered to improve the organisation and focus on the core aspects of your job? How can it be utilised to reduce redundant, unnecessary, and less enjoyable aspect of your work in order to spend more time and effort on creative and more meaningful tasks as well as responsibilities.

  • Digital inclusion: In what ways do people feel as digital technological makes them feel more included in decision-making and organisational processes? To what extent does it promote an empowering internal culture where employees feel their opinions are heard and their individual needs understood?

  • Boundaryless empowerment: How can digital technology contribute to people’s overall career progression within different organisations and job types? In what way can data be used so as to maximize the empowerment of workers and the value added to businesses without sacrificing personal privacy rights? What forms of reciprocal agreements can be reached that assist an individual’s overall professional and personal aspirations while also optimising their individual contribution to the firm?

Already certain companies are already exhibiting such a forward thinking approach. New HR products like MHR’s 'people first' system reveal the potential for making data genuinely empowering for employees. What is clear is that if employers do not give people a reason to re-engage with the future, they will most likely fail to get them to positively engage with the present.

Peter Bloom is a senior lecturer in organisational studies and head of the department for people and organisations at the Open University Business School

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