Watch Carefully

New monitoring and tracking technologies, plus a wary workforce, can spell trouble for CIOs who forget they're dealing with people - not applications. Here's how not to mess up.

A plan for putting radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on shipping containers contributed to strained relations between workers and management at the Port of Oakland in 2002 and eventually helped trigger a job action and a subsequent (and widely reported) lockout.

Snowplough contractors in Boston protested against a new contract in 2003 that mandated the use of global positioning systems (GPS) in their vehicles.

This year, several workers were reportedly fired after a hidden camera caught them clocking out other employees at an Air Canada facility in the Toronto airport. After the firings, workers instantly downed tools and struck for four hours, stranding thousands of passengers.

As these examples indicate, technology can make people touchy, particularly if they believe the technology is compromising their privacy. But if your plan is properly organized and executed, employee reaction to your implementation of what are sometimes perceived as Orwellian applications and systems doesn't have to hit the evening news. Sure, you'll never be able to please everybody. But careful planning, constant communication and a willingness to nurture the fragile flower of employee trust can go a long way toward turning invasive technology into invaluable technology.

Before Implementation:

Establish Trust

The Business Case: SuperShuttle, a US-wide transportation provider, wanted to equip all of its drivers with GPS-enabled phones in order to improve scheduling capabilities and customer service.

The Employee Concern: Drivers feared that the company would be able to track their movements even when they weren't working.

What SuperShuttle Did Right: SuperShuttle CIO Michael Hogan and his team explained to the drivers the benefits they would derive from the technology. For example, in addition to spending less time in traffic (the Vettro GPS software would help dispatchers guide them around traffic jams), the drivers also would be able to choose their fares. Previously, the dispatchers had directed drivers to their next destination. With the GPS system, a driver could look at a list of passengers, immediately see where the passengers were on a map and decide to take the ones closest to him - or choose a longer route that had more riders. Hogan emphasized that the GPS system liberated drivers to "determine their own destiny".

Hogan also let drivers know that SuperShuttle would not -and could not - track them after hours, even if they decided to carry their GPS-enabled mobile phones all the time. (The tracking Java applet could simply be turned off.) Such assurances of off-the-job privacy should be one of the first steps taken before the implementation of any new technology that can be seen as potentially facilitating electronic eavesdropping.

The Lesson: If you don't tell employees what to expect, they'll invent something, and inevitably, it will be bad. Let employees know what's in it for them before implementing a potentially invasive technology, and be clear about the technology's limits.

During Implementation:

Test, Test, Train, Train

The Business Case: The latest version of the UPS Delivery Information Acquisition Device (DIAD - those handheld computers carried by every UPS driver) will include GPS features to allow for new location-based services, such as preventing drivers from delivering packages to the wrong address.

The Employee Concern: The GPS capabilities of the new DIAD could make employees' lives more difficult by overwhelming them with useless information.

The Company Concern: Management worried that, if improperly implemented, the new GPS feature could simply annoy drivers with repeated warnings that they were about to deliver a package to the wrong place - even when they were on their way to the right one - and thus, over time, train them to ignore the feature.

What UPS Did Right: Most importantly, UPS took its time. No stranger to long implementation cycles, UPS had the new DIAD in development and testing for 18 months. The goal was to fine-tune the system to get the most benefit without overwhelming drivers. "We're not pressed to do this stuff quickly," UPS Systems Manager Roy Lancraft says. But even after 18 months, Lancraft says the company is still looking to acquire more data about how people will work with the machine through in-the-field testing. "The damage you can cause by trying to put it out quickly can take many, many months to correct," Lancraft says.

The Lesson: Take your time, and get employees involved in the process as early as possible. That can prevent more serious problems later.

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Post-Implementation:

Add Incentives

The Business Case: Del-Air, a Florida heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor, needed a better way to track its more than 400 technicians on their various jobs. In January 2004, the company distributed GPS-enabled mobile phones with a time-tracking application. Employees now punch in using their phones. The application logs both their location and the time they signed in.

The Employee Concern: Increased micromanagement of employees' activities would rob their freedom and add stress to their jobs.

What Del-Air Did Right: It linked its new technology to its bonus system. Del-Air technicians are rewarded for completing their work quickly. But when time sheets came back on paper, nobody knew if the company was getting legitimate data. That uncertainty made it difficult for employees to trust that the bonus system was fair. Now, Del-Air CIO John Rucker says the workers accept that the playing field is level. "When they pass out the incentive cheques," Rucker says, "everybody knows who the big hitter was. If the employee is efficient with his time, there's a better than average chance they'll get a bonus." And Rucker believes that's helped Del-Air keep its best employees. Better yet, the information can help Del-Air identify employees who could benefit from additional training.

Del-Air learned from a previous experience with a GPS tracking system that it launched about five years ago. "After a short period of orientation - 30 to 45 days - we essentially stopped promoting the benefits of the technology," Rucker says. And how did that work out? "We lost almost 20 percent of our techs in a rather short period," says Rucker.

The Lesson: Carrots work better than sticks.

Post-Implementation:

Grant an Amnesty Period

The Business Case: To end the practice of employees doing favours for each other by punching each other out on the time clock (making it difficult to schedule work), Air Canada installed a secret camera.

The Employee Reaction: Outraged that they were being spied upon, the workers struck earlier this year.

What Air Canada Did Wrong: They implemented the system without telling their employees, thereby playing "gotcha". They compounded that mistake by firing the employees they caught.

What Air Canada Should Have Done: David Zweig, professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto, says the problems at Air Canada might have been resolved through communication and training. Air Canada, he suggests, should have told its employees that the old practice of clocking out for buddies would no longer be tolerated - and that in order to end that behaviour, the airline was installing cameras in the maintenance facility. Management should have opened a dialogue discussing why the practice was occurring in the first place. An amnesty period after installing the cameras might have defused the rancour that led to the strike, Zweig says. (Air Canada ultimately did reinstate the fired workers and open discussions with the union - but only after the damage had been done.)

The Lesson: A hidden camera should be a last resort, not the first. "The first reaction for organizations is that monitoring is an easy out," says Zweig. "Other options can take a lot more time and a lot more trust."

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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