Friday, December 7, 2007

The PsychoDemographics of Attracting Creative Talent

We recently attended a presentation at Babson College by Tom Davenport, co-author of Winning on Analytics and a generally talented thinker. Analytics is the science of developing raw data into information, knowledge and wisdom. As presented in Davenport's talk, very smart organizations, such as Amazon, are mining data to support a remarkable customer orientation, e.g., knowing what sort of books to recommend whenever a returning customer logs on to its website. (In one of the talk's humorous moments, Davenport chided a Netflix user for not paying attention to the company's recommendation in building his viewing queue: "Big mistake.") Through analytics, the websites of large organizations can actually get to know you better and show more concern about you than a lot of smaller enterprises, especially the one where the 23 year old who is supposed to be giving you service is telling you to hold tight for a minute while she takes a call from another friend.

By linking monetary and near monetary rewards to customer loyalty and choice, organizations that study their data and learn from it are in a powerful position to drive specific behaviors. For example, what if you were to receive your favorite (and expensive) health supplements from your insurer for free for engaging in fitness related purchases? Maybe your insurance company would have an arrangement with your drug store to award everyone who made ten approved supplement purchases a year, as long as they could get a copy of the transactions. Even if a reward like this were to be a complete surprise, for a lot of people it would be an excellent "thank you" for simply making an intelligent choice.

Sounds pretty good, right. But, privacy concerns are one of the shadows to our suppliers knowing so much about us. By analyzing our purchasing patterns, our driving routines (via transponders), our food consumption, our professional (LinkedIn) and social (Facebook) networks and on and on, the owners of large data mines could actually know more about us than we know about ourselves, at least in some respects. They would become the practitioners of PsychoDemographics, the art of knowing what individuals and groups of people will do by studying the patterns of their publicly recorded behavior. For example, I know I like chocolate, but I'm not sure that I want Trader Joe's to be the ultimate repository of just how much of a sweet tooth I actually have as a result of their keeping better track of my purchases of cocoa-based products. But would I say no to the free bar of bitter sweet with almonds they'd give me at the check out line? Would the person in line behind me say no to the free cloth bag they'd give her for never using one of their paper bags? Would the person behind him say no to the free bottle of chardonay he'd get for making his sixth wine purchase in two weeks?!

Of course,
somber Orwellian possibilities are easy to envision when one considers what could happen if a powerful entity uses information against the interests of particular individuals or groups. Certainly this sort of David and Goliath match up would not be new. For example, as documented in An Unreasonable Man, in the 1960s General Motors noted Ralph Nader's frequent visits to a particular supermarket, where it sent a femme fatale in an effort to seduce him and ruin his reputation, an invasion of privacy which was ultimately revealed at a Congressional hearing, causing the company significant embarrassment. Imagine what could and is being done in an era when every click is being monitored on thousands of websites. You think maybe this is why so many mail order drug companies have decided to remind me how very much I need Viagra now that I am of a certain age?

When I asked Davenport if privacy concerns were coming up in any of the conversations he was having about analytics, his response was provocative:
In Europe, absolutely. But, here in the US, we don't seem to care as long as we get rewarded for giving up our data. Of course, you know what Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy said about consumer privacy : "You have zero privacy. Get over it."
(Hmmm. I wonder if Scott McNealy has zero privacy. I'd sort of bet he doesn't, but that's just a hunch.)

From the standpoint of future relationship between employers and the creative people they want to have working for them, there would seem to be a number of paradoxes deriving from the fact that so much is--or at least could be--known about us. On the one hand, Google's interest in hiring young people who've held leadership positions in clubs or wacky activities of some sort could lead them to track the performance of children in elementary school. Imagine how thrilling it would be to any sixteen year old to be contacted by a Google after placing 2d in a local high school debating society tournament or putting up a new mix of spoems: "Hey, we are checking out how hugely technocratic you are!" On the other hand, imagine how a teenager like
16-year-old Robert Santangelo feels about the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) suing his mom for his allegedly illegal file sharing. I bet that was a surprise, and not a happy one. I don't think Robert will be applying for an entry level position with Sony anytime soon, but I could be wrong. Who knows; maybe they'll come to appreciate his initiative and offer him an executive slot someday.

Here's my hypothesis: The companies that use the openness of the digital era against people will, ultimately, lose share in the competition for energetic self-starters to those who use it to demonstrate that they care about the people they understand through PsychoDemographics. The Palisades Medical Center will pay a very high price for having abused the privacy of George Clooney and turning his records over to the celebrity-obsessed media.
Top talent won't go for that organization culture. But, companies like Apple that use available data to find people who love to be part of great teams will be big winners in a future where growing the zone of personal trust and intimacy within an organization will be an antidote to the loss of privacy in the public sphere.

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