As long as there have been workers, management has looked for ways to manage performance. In the case of piece work, it was mostly used to provide incentives for productivity. As the economy became more service oriented, performance was also measured so that throughput could be forecasted more accurately (think about a telephone center predicting the number of call to be handled on a certain day).
The use of this data has traditionally been used to “gamify” work as well. That is, make reaching certain performance level an incentive in and of itself. Sales competitions are a great example of this. The logic being that if something is like playing a game it will be more fun (read: motivating) than something that seems like work.
Big data gives companies more ammunition to gamify work. It also provides opportunities for the application of it to go beyond making or selling widgets. As this article points out, Uber is at the forefront of this (though, make no mistake, they are not the only ones doing it).
Uber really has a love/hate relationship with its drivers. Right now it needs them, but they foresee a day where they will need fewer people behind the wheel due to the automation of cars. Uber needs a lot of drivers to provide high levels of service, but a glut of them leads to fewer occurrences of surge pricing (Uber’s version of raising prices and being more profitable when demand is high compared to the supply of drivers), which leads to fewer people being available since they will not make as much money.
Forecasting labor availability is key for the company in order to maintain service levels. But, since Uber insists that the drivers are independent contractors who can work whenever they want, they cannot schedule the appropriate number of drivers to match anticipated demand. So, to keep drivers logged in the app and behind the wheel, they have employed the same techniques that video game designers use to keep people playing.
In the article, the author clearly thinks that tapping into these motivations is “tricking” drivers into spending more time behind the wheel than they may want to. But, is this really any different than traditional motivation techniques used by leaders such as providing intrinsic motivators like praise (“I appreciate the hard work you put into that presentation”) to reward and encourage future efforts? Is it more coercive than, “You need to work at the store on Thanksgiving or your fired.”?
The answers really depend on whether the goals that Uber wants to achieve are aligned with those of the drivers. If keeping more people in the app leads to more idle time (time spent without making any money), then I have a real problem with it. If it helps manage the drivers’ time in a way that allows them to be more efficient and them and Uber to be more profitable, then I am good with it.
Worker performance has always been managed to help achieve organizational goals. New technologies allow companies to look at these issues more closely than ever before. HR should examine closely whether these efforts enhance engagement and, in the case of independent contractors, financial viability.