Will the IoT will be the second coming of the Time-And-Motion-Man?


It is probably just an `age’ thing, but a conversation with SAP CTO, Irfan Khan, closes off some concerns about the potential for negative human impact from IoT use at work and instead points to good synergy between companies and employees, rather a revival of the `Time-And-Motion’ man.

Irfan Khan
Irfan Khan

Back in early January the `Leaders Meet Innovation’ conference in London made extensive use of the application of new technology to both the management and promotion of sport and the way the players play it.

Given this was a conference aimed primarily at sports marketing personnel, the management use of technology made an obvious subject for discussion. But the use of technology with the players raised some interesting questions, especially when applied to the wider work force out there in the rest of the world.

The underlying track here was that variations on the Internet of Things (IoT) – especially in terms of monitoring, measuring and reporting the ever-more detailed aspects of the capabilities of individual players of games such as basketball – were being combined with various aspects of data analytics. The idea is simple – and impressively effective for both individual players and teams.

It is possible to use both on-body monitoring devices during training sessions, and multiple video images during matches to closely and then very finely measure both the core physical attributes and capabilities of individual players, and their skills and tactical/strategic understanding of the game itself. It is by taking the two aspects together that a far richer and more successful training regime can be created for each individual player. 

For example, understanding, through watching multiple digital replays, that a player favours playing down the left side, but is poor at seeing other team members soon enough to make telling passes,  can lead to the application of new training techniques and specific tactical training sessions to improve the player’s skills.

The value is also clear: better trained and adapted players means a better team that can win more, while still improving the resale value of individual players that do not fit in, for whatever reason. There is a win:win:win for the team, the players and the fans.

All jolly fine, but……..

This all raises a question, especially as the core technologies start to be applied across all areas of business and commerce. There is an obvious, and possibly growing logic that businesses should be able to monitor the effectiveness and productivity of their staff. The level to which this might now be possible, however, is such that it raises a serious social doubt.

Is it possible that this monitoring, tracking and management capability could be over-used by business managers looking to improve the productivity and effectiveness of employees to the point of seeing them as automatons?

Put it another way, could this lead to the re-birth of the Time-And-Motion-Man as an IoT management tool?

The opportunity arose to ask someone with a potential vested interest in selling just such management, in the shape of Irfan Khan, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SAP’s Global Customer Operations. SAP has an interest in developing and selling such tools, and it certainly has the capability to do so. The real question now, as such management approaches become possible, is whether there is a market demand for it? Is there a role for it in wider business and how might SAP see itself being involved?

In practice, Khan sees little possibility of that worst-case scenario emerging, though he does acknowledge that much of the cultural underpinning for it is already in place.

He breaks workers down into three main categories: traditional white-collar, blue-collar, and what he calls no-collar workers. These are people who work in very time-driven jobs on assembly lines and conveyor belts. These are the jobs where even a toilet break has to be taken during an official  break period because the conveyer belt can’t be stopped once it gets going.

Such people are, perhaps, the most susceptible to suffering the strictures of the ‘Time-And-Motion’ model, but they are also now the types of job that are most likely to be automated out of existence in the future. Khan suggests: 

If you look at the blue-collar workers, let’s look at it from a logistics and transportation point of view, like a courier for example. They’ve been using technology for a number of years now where they give you route optimisation. They tell you to go to this place first, drop off there and then go to the next place, because it’s more optimum. You’re being told to do certain things in a certain way because analytically, it’s clearer to the business to do it that way because you waste less fuel, you gain more activity etc.

By the way, a lot of these workers, whether they be no-collar or blue-collar, have had the notion of clocking in and clocking out so once again you know when you’re there and when you’re not there.

As for white-collar workers he sees them as largely ‘bought-in’ on many of the cultural aspects, having broadly been users of smart phones and tablets, for a good six or seven years now. They are well versed in being connected:

They are all constantly doing virtual housekeeping, whether that’s deleting an email, updating a status, approving a whatever, so we’ve given ourselves that way of life already.

His view of how staff might now see the Time-And-Motion-Man concept is interesting, not least because of his own experience as a young man working for a while on a conveyor belt assembly line. His view is that modern workforces would look for the good in such a role, for the advantage it might give them. This, not least, is because the modern version of that job is no longer an individual with a clipboard looking for the fastest worker on a specific task, but instead is an analysis tool capable of deducing not just optimal production rates but also the most effective process steps.

As an example, Khan returned to the courier driver motif, where there are often strict targets that have to be met, such as delivering 500 consignments a day or 1000 consignments a week. Here, the goal now is to get a balance between the individual’s tacit knowledge of an area, and the input from analysis of relevant information, such as assigned delivery addresses and map data. 

It is here that the real time element also comes into play, for the system can now know better than the driver what is happening on the road in a locale, due to inputs from the local police and traffic reports. Using that information – be it emergency road works or a traffic accident – the system can re-schedule the route and delivery sequence to accommodate the problem. This is a good example of how a skilled sports trainer would see that a player isn’t doing something quite right or as well as they should.

Be guided by it/IT

His view is that people are now willing to take on board a lot more of this type of guidance and optimisation in their day-to-day activities rather than viewing it in the negative light of the Time-And-Motion-Man trying to do them out of a job, or become a hindrance to their wellbeing. In addition, Khan pointed to the European Union, through its regulations on health and safety plus a whole variety of worker council initiatives, now providing some checks and balances that most employers have in place:

Arguably, I think there is a benefit in having some well-driven personal guidance. I for one, do this all the time. I get lots of KPIs set for me as a CTO. I don’t believe that there’s going to be an encroachment on peoples personal time beyond what they’re able to deal with today.

I’m more than confident to say that the majority, if not all ethically based employment today is centred around helping employees do the best that they can for themselves and of course for the corporations that they represent.

I think in society in general there’s so much more information and awareness of how information is being used and how it could be used in a meaningful way. I feel it would go against the grain of where we are in society for that level of scrutiny to come in in a negative way, if I’m going to be brutally honest with you.

My take

I would like to think Irfan Khan is right on this. But the application of IoT in this area is going to be a two-edged sword, and when a sword has two edges there will always be some who want to see how deep the other edge cuts.

Disclosure - At time of writing, SAP is a premier partner of diginomica.