Down To Business: The Age Of The Control Freak - InformationWeek

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06:35 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: The Age Of The Control Freak

Control freaks call the shots today. But before you start howling about Big Brother gone bonkers, look in the mirror.

The control freaks are calling the shots in corporate America. Chief compliance and human-resources officers regulate what we ask, collect, and communicate. Chief information officers control what we download, access, use, and share. Chief marketing officers script out what we say to the media, customers, and partners. Chief executive officers keep an eye on all the chiefs.

In this corporate environment, decisions made outside the box are viewed with skepticism, even fear. Those processes that can't be counted, measured, compartmentalized, tracked, analyzed, automated, or secured very easily are just too unwieldy for comfort. Gut decisions are for old-timers. The young turks view management as a hard science.

The control freaks are armed with the latest information technologies: radio-frequency identification systems to keep tabs on shipments, inventory levels, and even people; Web site monitoring software to track where employees are going and what they're doing online; keystroke-measurement tools to rate the productivity of call center agents and other workers; data mining algorithms to identify customer needs and anticipate dodgy behavior; dashboards to show business performance in near real time; E-mail monitoring software to identify potentially illegal and noncompliant activity. The arsenal is fully stocked.

Blame the lawmakers and other committees of the good and great for creating an oversight economy with their SOXs and HIPAAs and hundreds of industry-specific regulations. Blame the bad guys--the hackers, the white-collar criminals, the online predators, the screw-ups who can't seem to hold on to anyone's personal data. Most of all, blame the hyperintense, bottom-line world in which we compete, where performance no longer is measured in years and quarters, but in weeks, days, and hours.

Which is to say, don't bother blaming anyone. This is the new reality. So before you start howling about Big Brother gone bonkers, look in the mirror. We're all active, willing participants in this control freak show. It's not just the government bureaucrats and the data aggregators and the huge retailers and the direct marketers who want to know everything they can about you and what you're up to. Every company is using technology to wrap its arms around its people, processes, partners, and customers.

Consider the evolution of E-mail. Employees still use the work messaging system like it's their own personal account, letting fly with all manner of inappropriate, inadvisable, and illegal communications. Meantime, E-mail is discovered in 90% of all corporate litigation. No wonder that companies, many of which are required by law to archive those E-mails for easy retrieval, are now monitoring them in real time for activity that would suggest fraud, regulatory malfeasance, leakage of trade secrets, and other misconduct--under the theory that an ounce of prevention beats a ton of fines and lost business later on.

But control isn't just about monitoring and tracking people and processes. It's also about extracting knowledge. For instance, phone, package delivery, and other companies use predictive analytics to figure out which customers are most likely to bolt for a competitor, so that they can take pre-emptive action. Even major league baseball teams and their tobacco-chewing, crotch-scratching managers employ "sabermetric" techniques to crunch player stats and identify undervalued talent.

Of course, employers and managers can go overboard with this stuff. We must remain keenly aware that creativity doesn't always show up in a spreadsheet column, that the controls intended to measure and boost performance can stifle it if they're applied independent of qualitative analysis.

Innovation is a tricky business. Informed innovation, however, is less so.

Rob Preston,
[email protected]

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