Big Data Gets Personal: Wearable Tech In Your Workplace

How much sleep am I getting? Am I running as often as I should? Questions like these are the starting point for the next workplace data revolution, one that already may be walking around your office.

Call it wearable tech, the Internet of Things (IoT), or the quantified self — all terms reflecting a reality in which we collect as much data about our personal lives as we do (or should) about our sales figures. And what we do with that data could profoundly impact workplace culture and productivity.

Fit for work?

If your family’s as exercise-obsessed as mine, you already know about the most common type of personal data device: fitness and health-related devices. My husband uses a Polar wristband that tracks his heart rate while cycling. My Fitbit tracks how much I walk and reminds me I really need to take the stairs more often. There are numerous smartphone and, yes, smart watch apps that will track my mood, sleep habits or even how often I call my mom. I can then share this data via social networks if I want.

Google Glass, iWatch and beyond

But wearable devices don’t have to be focused just on health. The Hitachi Business Microscope looks like an elaborate employee ID badge but includes sensors that track not just who you talk to at work, but where and how actively. A manager can monitor who speaks up at meetings and who spends more time at the coffee machine than their desk.

Then there’s the much-discussed Google Glass. An always-on Net-enabled video camera that sits on the frame of your glasses just at your temple is either the coolest collaboration tool since Skype or your worst privacy nightmare. Speculation that Apple is developing an iWatch is also driving up interest in the future of wearable tech.

Pew Research Center report released last month concluded that most experts believe that by 2025 there will be a “global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers,” and that people will experience “augmented reality … through the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.”

So how do we, in 2014, prepare for this brave new world? Here are three things to keep in mind:

1) Useful is better than cool

Just because your CEO is really excited about her Pebble smartwatch doesn’t mean you should rush to buy them for everyone. Think about what you want to get out of the technology — and don’t be afraid to ask for input. Your employees are more likely to embrace tools that improve their safety or effectiveness vs. being monitored without purpose. And create metrics for your metrics. An app that tracks informal social interactions within a work team sounds great, but if using it never results in improved productivity or morale, then move on to the next idea.

Also, don’t forget about the technology you already have. Do you really need to use Google Glass to have an online meeting with a colleague sitting at a desk in London? No. The cameras on your computers work just fine.

2) Take privacy concerns seriously

Even in 2014, some employees are still surprised to learn that their company can monitor their work email. If you are investing in wearable tech, make sure your employees know what you’re using the data for and how the information is being stored.

Prepare, too, for your employees bringing their devices to work. What happens the first time someone wants to use his smart watch to record a meeting? Or take pictures of the factory floor with Google Glass? Investigate policies that cover individual as well as corporate use of these devices.

3) Reach out to your IT leadership

Loads of cool new technology without a plan to support it means it’ll be in a closet with the fax machine in a year. So find out who on the IT team is thinking about this stuff and start planning.

The good news is you’ve been through this before. These “new” challenges are similar to those raised by smartphones only a few years ago: Which devices will the IT team support? Do corporate security polices require a centralized ability to lock and/or wipe data from them? Who decides on data standards?

Getting ready

One expert quoted in last month’s Pew report noted that the 13 billion Internet-connected devices in 2013 will surge to 50 billion by 2020, including not just devices we know about now, but ones “of which we have not yet conceived.”

How is your workplace preparing for the opportunity?

This story originally appeared in SAP Business Trends and