Companies are collecting an increasing amount of data on their employees, but that does not mean they are confident in their ability to mine the data responsibly. That's the disconcerting result from a survey conducted by Accenture and released at this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
More than two-thirds (70%) of business leaders globally said they are "not very confident" that they are using new sources of workplace data in a "highly responsible" way. But that is not going to stop them.
Just about half of the C-suite executives (49%) say they will use the workplace data as they see fit, with no additional responsibility measures; only 31 percent say employee concerns are holding them back, according to the Accenture survey.
"There is a lot of risk for companies and employees, and for society," said Ellyn Shook, Accenture's chief leadership and human resources officer. "If you are not very confident, you are in trouble," Shook said. She said that companies that proceed without well-constructed policies on use of employee data — what she calls "workforce DNA" — and without the input of employee groups will lose trust and revenue potential rather than gain business opportunities. It is an opportunity that Accenture estimates at more than $6 trillion globally — $3 trillion in the United States alone. "There are massive, untapped sources of workforce data," she said.
Privacy experts worry that the results from the Accenture survey indicate that businesses do not act with prudence.
"Our concern continues to be that the speed with which new technologies are being introduced in the workplace is blurring the boundaries between employees and employers," said Joseph Jerome, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "It's good to see so many business leaders are aware of — and concerned about — this situation, but the report pretty clearly suggests that enterprise needs to drive business efficiencies through the collection and exploitation of data will win out over generalized ethical concerns."
The Accenture survey reveals several unresolved tensions between employers and employees over use of workforce data.
Seventy percent of employees say they will only be willing to let employers collect their data if the employer communicates how data will be used (and what benefits employees may receive as a result of sharing data) if the employer communicates its plans transparently. Yet in the United States, there are only two states, Delaware and Connecticut, where there is a law overseeing workplace collection of data.
"A thoughtful legislative solution isn't on the immediate horizon, but companies must be much more transparent with their employees, even when not required by the law," Jerome said.
"In the absence of regulation, companies are starting to think about the right ways to use employee data. Trust is the most significant currency in the digital age with consumers and employees," Shook said. "It's essential that companies start to think about how to use the data responsibly and it is no longer a choice. This isn't an HR issue. It is a business issue when trust becomes the biggest lever in the financial equation."
The Center for Democracy & Technology has been worried for years about specific employee data vulnerabilities, such as bring-your-own-device policies and employer wellness programs. Jerome said the Accenture study shows that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to address basic data-protection issues as well as the ethical and surveillance implications of large-scale employer data collection.
Companies already use email and calendar data to monitor employees, and Shook said new technologies will push these efforts into even more fraught territory. "If you think of how industries and companies are now using wearables and facial recognition and voice recognition ... able to access data beyond the walls of companies ... there are so many new sources of data, it will either be a goldmine or minefield."
The survey findings highlight a disconnect between employers and employees over reciprocal data-sharing relationships.
"It hasn't been top of mind with U.S. employees, but it is becoming a bigger issue," Shook said.
As one example, she said if an employee consents to use a Fitbit, they should get a credit on health-care benefits.
Accenture collects data on its employees for purposes including analyzing the market value of individual skills and capabilities, but it allows employees to challenge the data and ask for corrections or even deletions. That data can include recent use of and certifications for important workplace technologies. "Knowing skills and capabilities and [employee] proficiencies in them, and [employees] being able to see and alter them creates more confidence that how much they are being paid is based on the right information," Shook said. Accenture does not store employee data beyond a specific business use.
Even though mining of employee data will not slow and many companies continue to believe that greater employee input and consent isn't critical, Shook remains more "tech utopian" than dystopian when it comes to the future. "I am optimistic, but the thing companies need to recognize is that technology is not their biggest source of competitive advantage. It is people, and the real value is in collaboration."
But the Accenture executive isn't blind to the current disconnect between companies and their workforce, either.
She noted that previous Accenture research from 2017 indicated that companies spent 60 percent more investing in intelligent technology, while only 3 percent of CEOs said they were investing more in people using intelligent technology. "That is where the problem lies," Shook said.