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What can big data reveal about corporate culture? Get ready for ‘people analytics’

March 20, 2015, 3:17 PM UTC
contract Armin Harris. Kyle Bean for Fortune
Kyle Bean for Fortune

Quantifying employee productivity is usually a rather qualitative, subjective exercise. But apparently, someone’s electronic calendar and email behavior can speak volumes about about his or her impact across an organization.

By examining this data in aggregate, for example, one manufacturing company, discovered some of its junior managers spent more than 30 hours every week “managing up” with reports to senior executives or in status meetings. Bottom line: that left just 10 hours of time for “real” work for the host, not to mention the ripple effect across their own teams.

“You can quickly see the ‘load’ senior executives are imposing, as well as the social graph of who else is affected,” said Ryan Fuller, co-founder of VoloMetrix, which sells software for measuring all this.

Using that insight, the manufacturer embraced a policy of fewer meetings. VoloMetrix sends status updates that remind people to stay true to that policy.

Welcome to the brave new world of “people analytics,” which uses time management data to help companies understand the relationships—external and internal—driving corporate decision-making. “Once a company understands the behaviors that correlate to success, they can measure them,” Fuller said.

VoloMetrix, which has raised $17 million in venture financing (including a $12 million round last fall), counts several dozen large companies including Boeing, Facebook, Genentech, Qualcomm, Seagate and Symantec among its official customer references.

Many of these organizations use the technology to tame meeting overload. Some also use it to examine how the habits of high-performing sales representatives differ from others. “There are real behavior differences between great performers and average performers,” Fuller suggested. “For example, the best ones might have engaged with 10 more contacts at each customer.” You won’t be surprised to hear that VoloMetrix can pull in data from Salesforce to help with this.

The privacy implications of whatVoloMetrix is trying to do are pretty weighty. That’s one reason the company recently hired former Microsoft privacy strategist, Peter Cullen, to guide its path. Right now, reports are anonymized. Individuals can see metrics such as time spent with their manager or time spent managing email versus other employees. But they can’t see what others are doing, specifically.

Another company talking up this space is Culture Amp, used by the likes of Airbnb, Box, Etsy, GoDaddy, Jawbone, and dozens of other technology disruptors. Its develops snapshots of employee engagement using surveys that are analyzed for trends over time.

The Australian company scored $6.3 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Felicis Ventures, Index Ventures, and Blackbird Ventures. “We are excited to back them because there is nothing more important than retaining and motivating key talent at every successful company now,” said Aydin Senkut, founder and managing director at Felicis.

Google is perhaps the most visible example of using analytics to shape just about every decision driving “people operations.” It has used insights for everything from reducing the number of interviews required to hire someone to lengthening its maternity leave to reduce attrition. Apparently, more businesses are getting ready to embrace that example.

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