How social feedback loops are changing our workplace (for better and for worse)

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Reputation data, culled from social feedback loops, is playing an increasingly large role in our professional lives

In Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people don’t work for money. Currency, as we know it, has become obsolete as technology has created such abundance that the old models of scarcity fall apart. Instead, paychecks are replaced with a new currency called Whuffie. Whuffie is a measure of reputation, or esteem. It rises and falls based on a person’s actions. Be a jerk to someone on the bus, and your Whuffie falls. Help a little old lady cross the street, and your Whuffie rises. Write an amazing story, and your Whuffie shoots up exponentially as it’s enjoyed and shared by thousands of people. And there’s the tricky part. It’s not enough to just to be good, you have to also be recognized for being good. In fact, one of the major plot points is when a series of unfortunate events and a fit of rage cause the main character to lose all his Whuffie, effectively making him an outcast from society.

Ok, so that world may sound far fetched, and a post-scarcity economy probably isn’t coming along anytime soon. But the concept of Whuffie is starting to turn into a very real thing in our professional lives, and it’s only going to get more prevalent in the future.

One of the top ‘future-of-work’ trends predicted in the book The 2020 Workplace is that workers will be hired and promoted based upon “reputation capital”. This will be a combination of both the depth and quantity of an employee’s social and professional networks, as well as hundreds of smaller data points indicating the worker’s influence in those circles. This already makes sense today in sales or marketing positions, but in the future it will extend to all roles within an organization.

Social feedback loops in the workplace today

iStock_000017132931XSmallTwitter and Facebook have given customers of all businesses a vehicle for voicing opinions on interactions with employees.  This amplified message can make it easier for a worker to be recognized for her hard work and good service (unfortunately, it can also have some negative consequences as well).  But many services are going a step further and  formally baking their worker’s reputation directly into their business models.

Micro-outsourcing marketplace TaskRabbit matches workers with people willing to pay them for odd jobs. Workers are rated and reviewed at the end of each task and those rankings in turn affect the likelihood that a worker will get more work in the future. Your ability to put together an IKEA bookshelf is important, but it’s equally important that other people recognize you for it. Similarly, the private car dispatcher Uber uses rankings by customers as it’s indicator of driver quality and will deprioritize or let go drivers with low overall scores (which has caused some controversy).

It’s not just customer service jobs

Reputation capital is becoming important in other areas, beyond customer service. At a previous company of mine, one of the things recruiters looked at when hiring software engineers was their level of participation on GitHub. While it was never a requirement, having a presence and being a member of the community was a considered a huge plus. Doing a quick scan of software engineering jobs on various job boards suggests that this preference is becoming more widespread.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Other niche communities where reputation is starting to matter more and more to employers include StackOverflow for software engineers, Kaggle for data scientists, and Dribbble or Behance for designers.

The rise of corporate social networks

For people already employed by a company, internal social network tools like Yammer and Work.com have features that allow colleagues to recognize an employee for a job well done. All those individual data points accumulate on the worker’s profile in the form of badges. This helps top performers stand out, and lets others in the organization easily identify experts on specific topics.

Instead of managerial performance reviews, software company Valve uses a multifaceted peer ranking system to get a better idea of each employees contribution to the company. Evaluations from multiple co-workers are aggregated in a way that forms a comprehensive picture of how the worker is performing, in a way that may not be evident by solely concentrating on traditional productivity output metrics.

Where should the line be drawn?

Part of the reason that reputation is becoming a big factor in our workplaces is that it’s now so easy to access all this new information about people, their accomplishments, and their impact on others. Data-points that would have been impossible to compile ten years ago are now cheap and abundant, either as a byproduct of existing networks, or due to technological advances that make giving feedback a frictionless experience.

But access to all this new data raises a lot of questions, and it’s clear that employers and employees are still struggling to find the proper balance.

Uber was recently on the receiving end of protests by some of their drivers. Among their complaints was the fact that drivers were being algorithmically dropped out of Uber’s labor pool due to low customer rankings. In a thought-provoking reaction, Om Malik refers to the potential for “data darwinism“, as some workers inevitably won’t be able to keep up with the ever-shifting emphasis around reputation, data and feedback.

Here in Washington State, a bill is in the works that will make it illegal for employers to request passwords for an employees personal social network sites. Other similar employee protections are already in place in many states. I personally can’t imagine ever asking an employee for that information in the first place, but the fact that bills are being passed prohibiting it is proof that the lines of what reputation information is acceptable in the workplace haven’t been clearly defined yet. I expect issues like this will receive much more attention in the future, and employers will have to ask themselves some hard questions about where their ethical boundaries are.

A reputation-based workplace could be really great, though

Despite the growing pains of social feedback loops in the workplace, there’s a lot of potential. Imagine a world where you never worry about your upcoming performance review, because you’ve had a constant stream of feedback from your peers letting you know exactly how you’re doing at your job. Imagine that feedback being multi-directional and transparent, so you are able to rank your manager on their performance and see how they rank compared to other managers at your company (or at other companies, for that matter).

What needs to happen to get us there?

Social feedback loops in the workplace are still in their early, prototypical stages. There are a lot of kinks to be worked out.

Both managers and workers need to become more data-literate (or, systems need to get more human-literate)

reputation-transistionAll this data is overwhelming, and most people don’t have a good sense for what decisions to make based on it. This will cause problems until decision makers become more skilled in integrating data into their processes. Used correctly, it can be an extremely powerful tool that empowers workers and scales really well across large organizations. Used incorrectly, it can be the source of a lot of really bad knee-jerk reactions. There will need to be experts to guide people through how to incorporate all these new streams into their thinking.

The flip side of this is that the systems aggregating and presenting this data will need to build in safeguards to encourage good data-based decision making. Social feedback loops can be terribly messy and lack context, so systems have a challenge of setting the proper expectations of how they should be used.

Raw data is generally really bad at giving context, and as such fails to paint a complete picture of the situation. Part of the solution may be even more data, presented in a coherent way that tells a more complete story.  Take Uber’s five star rating system, for example. How would those ratings changed based on some data about the passengers giving them? Should a 1 star rating mean less if it was clear it came from a person who consistently gave 1 star ratings? What if it was determined that a driver was mostly picking people up from an area that statistically gave lower rankings than usual? What if it was clear that a driver who received low ratings was new to the area? That may mean that instead of grounds for dismissal, it becomes an opportunity for some relatively inexpensive training that would remedy the situation.

Workers will need to start considering the role of reputation in their careers.

For sales people, journalists, and a handful of other professions, this is nothing new. But for everyone else, the idea that it’s not how good you are at your job, but rather how recognized you for being good at your job will be a bit of an adjustment.

What do you think?

Are social feedback loops part of the future of the workplace? And is that a good or bad thing? Do all these new data streams represent a better way for being recognized for doing a good job? Or is it just a bunch of irrelevant noise, a distraction from the work people are supposed to be doing in the first place?

Further Reading

Wired: Welcome to the new reputation economy

GigaOm: Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work

FastCoExist: The Future of Work: Quantified Employees, Pop-Up Workplaces, And More Telepresence

TED: Rachel Botsman: The currency of the new economy is trust

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