Sunday, April 12, 2009

Panopticon or Bee Hive – living in total transparency

People need to be watched, otherwise they will not do their job. That was the idea of Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison, the Panopticon, where every prisoner could easily be watched by much fewer guards.

Today there is software that does a similar job. For example, LiveJobs, a company that operates virtual call centers all over the US, distinguishes itself from competitors by meticulously tracking performance of its call center agents. Whether it is selling insurance, transcribing documents, or taking pizza delivery calls, LiveOps software monitors individual performance on the most granular level, and delivers it to both LiveOps management and the individual employee.

So, in a sense, big brother is always watching. People are “operating in total transparency”. At least for LiveOps employees, this does not seem to be such a bad thing. They continuously check their own performance every day. If they don’t perform, they will not be fired, but they will not get more work from LiveOps.

For knowledge workers, monitoring e-mail does provide the role of the panopticon. When we do a knowledge flow analysis of an organization, we provide the same function, offering individuals a “virtual mirror” based on their communication behavior. But other than the Panopticon, we only offer a condensed view of the organization to management – transparency for the individual, but guaranteeing their privacy to management, only releasing individual information at the request of the individual.

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